With Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pressing for action by Christmas, the Monday afternoon phone call between Biden and Manchin came at a critical moment. And Manchin is expressing privately and publicly that he’s not yet sold on the $1.7 trillion social spending bill.
In a sign of the fluid state of negotiations, White House spokesperson Andrew Bates signaled that Biden and Manchin would speak again in “the coming days.”
The West Virginia centrist is the main holdout for the party-line bill in a 50-50 Senate, and he’s concerned about rising debt, persistent inflation and the bill’s true costs, calling a Friday GOP-requested Congressional Budget Office report of the bill’s potential 10-year costs “sobering.” Prior to his phone call on Monday, at least, he did not sound like somebody ready to send the Democratic legislation to Biden’s desk without a lot more changes.
“Everyone has to choose basically what we can sustain,” Manchin told reporters, in a message to fellow Democrats.
Schumer made clear Monday he’s sticking to his schedule. The majority leader said on the floor that Democrats would continue working with the parliamentarian and finalizing the social spending bill this week, adding that Democrats are “working hard to put the Senate in a position to get the legislation across the finish line before Christmas.”
Manchin didn’t urge Schumer to punt consideration of the bill until January, nor did he say he would vote against anything. In vintage Manchin fashion, he’s still talking to his colleagues and keeping his options open.
“I’m not in charge,” Manchin said. As to Schumer’s time targets, Manchin said: “Maybe they’ll get everything done this week.”
Two recent reports served to increase Manchin’s economic anxiety. The CBO said Friday that if the provisions in the Democrats’ bill were extended, it would add $3 trillion to the deficit. Additionally, consumer prices surged in November, hiking inflation to its fastest rate since 1982. Democrats and the White House argue that the bill’s provisions will be paid for when they are extended and that inflation is peaking and soon to ease.
“He’s still concerned about inflation, concerned about the timing,” said a person who spoke to Manchin Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
His own concerns aside, Manchin heard out the president Monday afternoon while all of Washington waited on the conversation between the two Joes. He made a point to call Biden a “friend” and praise the president’s deep experience as a 36-year senator.
But it doesn’t sound like Biden shares Manchin’s concerns at the moment. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden would be “making the case for why the president feels this legislation should move forward.”
After the call, Manchin’s office released an almost studiously anodyne statement: “Senator Manchin and President Biden had a productive conversation this afternoon. They will continue to talk over the coming days.”
Behind the scenes, Senate Democrats are still rushing to piece together a bill that could see floor action this year, even as Manchin’s comments raise further doubts about whether Schumer can meet his Christmas goal. Over the weekend, two committees released updated legislative text, though the draft omitted a forthcoming compromise for state and local taxes and included paid leave, which Manchin wants to leave out of the social spending bill.
Perhaps most concerning for Democrats, though, is Manchin’s issue with the entire way the bill is constructed. As is common in Congress, several of the provisions from Democrats would expire quickly — in the case of the expanded child credit, after just one year. Manchin believes Democrats should assume those programs will be extended, which would increase the actual cost of the bill over time.
“If we don’t, we’re not transparent and accurate, then where does the money come from? We go back and another bite and more and more funding? Or do we just throw caution to the wind and have debt financing, which has been done by both parties for far too long?” Manchin said Monday.
He didn’t stop there. Manchin also said he wanted some of the money Democrats are raising from new taxes on corporations and the wealthy to go toward paying down the debt and urged the Federal Reserve Bank to taper its quantitative easing program, one of his key demands dating back to July.
Manchin’s hesitance, meanwhile, is keeping his colleagues guessing about how the next few days will shake out.
“Landing this plane is a big challenge, it’s an important moment,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who is close to Biden. “But I have real confidence that President Biden is a very persuasive leader.”
Claire Rafford contributed to this report.