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Image: Joe Manchin
Joe Manchin walks through a tunnel at the U.S. Capitol, on June 22, 2022.Francis Chung/E&E News / POLITICO via AP file

With his newest declaration, Joe Manchin proves his critics right

As Joe Manchin abandons the climate and tax measures he used to support, those who said he wasn't negotiating in good faith appear to be have been right.


Over the course of the last year, as Democratic negotiations over the White House’s Build Back Better agenda have unfolded, Sen. Joe Manchin has faced plenty of criticisms, though plenty of observers have pushed a notable defense.

Indeed, for months, many Capitol Hill observers have espoused a specific school of thought: The conservative West Virginia Democrat, they’ve argued, has been relatively consistent throughout the process, appearances notwithstanding. The problem, his defenders have claimed, is not that Manchin has been indecisive and unreasonable, but rather, that Democratic leaders haven’t paid close attention to his demands.

Instead, the argument went, Democrats made the mistake of thinking that they could twist his arm and get him to accept measures he disagreed with, assuming he’d eventually succumb to pressure. It’s why, advocates of this school of thought said, the larger problem is not entirely Manchin’s fault. He’s just a conservative senator being asked to endorse progressive goals.

Those who genuinely believed that the West Virginian was negotiating in good faith appear to have just lost their argument. NBC News reported overnight:

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and his staff told Democratic leadership on Thursday that he’s not willing to support major climate and tax provisions in a sweeping Biden agenda bill, according to a Democrat briefed on the conversations.... Manchin’s move upends lengthy negotiations with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., most likely forcing the party to scrap climate change policies and new taxes and delivering a major blow to some of President Joe Biden’s priorities heading into an already challenging midterm election landscape for Democrats this fall.

At issue is the Build Back Better agenda — or at least the latest iteration of the plan — that the Democratic majority planned to pass through the budget reconciliation process, which the Republican minority cannot block with a filibuster.

In mid-November, House Democrats passed an ambitious version of BBB, which included, among other things, funding for universal pre-school, an extended and expanded Child Tax Credit, a closing of the Medicaid gap, housing aid, new Pell Grants, and a half-trillion-dollar investment to combat climate change, including massive clean energy tax credits. It was, by any fair measure, a transformative piece of legislation that would have been life-changing for millions of American families.

Manchin didn’t like that bill. A month after it passed, he did, however, endorse an alternative, $1.8 trillion package that would’ve included many of the House’s bill key elements.

And then the conservative Democrat said he didn’t like his own blueprint, either.

In the months that followed, party leaders effectively started over, working methodically on a new package based on Manchin’s preferred framework: The new, narrower, and slimmed down bill would lower prescription drug costs, address climate change, lower the deficit, raise taxes on the wealthy, and possibly include funding for health care coverage.

Late yesterday, Manchin once again decided he no longer likes the plan he'd helped negotiate. His latest offer — at least as of this morning — is a bill that would lower prescription drug costs and maintain existing Affordable Care Act subsidies, but only for two years.

Remember, as exasperating as it’s been to watch these negotiations unfold, Manchin was actually rather progressive on tax policy, repeatedly insisting that higher taxes on the wealthy should be part of any agreement. As recently as February, the West Virginian publicly and privately pressed Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema to accept some rollbacks of the Republicans’ ineffective 2017 tax breaks, as part of a larger deal.

A Washington Post report added today, “Manchin long had called for significant changes to the tax code. Only days ago, he signed on to one of many Democratic-backed plans to raise more revenue from the wealthiest taxpayers.”

And then the conservative Democrat announced that he no longer agrees with himself, and he won’t support a plan that raises taxes on anyone.

As a political matter, this is bizarre: Tax increases on the wealthy, raising revenue that would pay for domestic priorities, are very popular with voters. This is exactly the sort of thing a governing party should do ahead of a difficult election cycle.

But as a policy matter, Manchin’s declaration is even more incoherent: The senator claims to be fixated on inflation and deficit reduction, but tax increases on the rich are counter-inflationary and without tax hikes, reducing the deficit isn’t going to happen in this reconciliation package.

Who knows, maybe Manchin will change his mind again, and by dinner time, he’ll have an entirely different proposal in mind. But for now, the only people who aren’t surprised this morning are those who said the West Virginian wasn’t negotiating in good faith; his stated goals were hollow and inconsistent; and he wouldn’t follow through on his commitments.

In other words, Joe Manchin once again proved his critics right.