President Joe Biden on Thursday will spend the second straight day focused on components of the $1.75 trillion economic and climate package that serves as the cornerstone of his domestic agenda.
But as Biden is set to travel to Virginia to talk about the Build Back Better Act, a constant refrain has pinged back and forth from Capitol Hill to K Street: Why?
There is no clear timeline for its passage. There are no official negotiations under way. Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who imploded the effort in December, still refers to the package – repeatedly – as “dead.”
Democrats, even as they are reticent to set timelines and wary of pushing the intra-party war back into the public sphere, stress there is a plan.
Just don’t expect it to be readily apparent, despite Biden’s events this week, any time soon.
To be clear, this isn’t the timeline Democrats envisioned. At all. But they are not done with the Build Back Better Act. It will most certainly be scaled back thanks to Manchin. Its exact contents and pathway to passage remain opaque and, for whatever it’s worth, it appears likely to carry a different name.
Quietly, Biden and Democratic leaders are eying the best time to launch the effort.
As Democratic official involved in the process put it in a text message: “Timing. Is. Everything.”
The current dynamics
The conversations about the future of Build Back Better are primarily taking place on Capitol Hill. There is no official negotiating track, or central clearinghouse for the conversations, aides said.
Manchin isn’t re-engaged with the White House on the issue, though he has had conversations with other senators.
“These discussions are ongoing,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday. The White House legislative affairs team is looped in, people familiar with the matter told CNN, but it is not the focal point of their day-to-day, one official said.
A lot of the current conversations, Psaki noted, “are happening between members on the Hill to determine what they can have support for. And our staff and senior members of the team are engaged in those as well.”
There’s a good reason for the White House taking a clear step back, beyond the obvious vote-count issues – there’s a whole lot of other things moving on Capitol Hill. There’s a looming Supreme Court nomination and progress toward a full-year spending agreement. There’s the China competition legislation and election reform bills.
Postal reform and legislation to overhaul how workplace sexual assault and harassment claims are handled are also on the move.
There’s even finally an agreement on a Violence Against Women Act reauthorization.
“I have always said Democrats will work on a bipartisan basis whenever we can to pass commonsense legislation that will improve the lives of the American people,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said on Wednesday.
Progressives are agitating for the White House and Democratic leaders to kick the economic and climate package negotiations into gear for a March 1 deadline – the day of Biden’s State of the Union address.
“We think we can get to a deal and the President can use his bully pulpit on March 1 to tell the American people what we are going to do to lower their costs and invest in all of our families,” Rep. Pramila Jaypal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told CNN.
White House and congressional Democratic sources tell CNN they are skeptical of any agreement before the State of the Union, for reasons laid out ahead.
But something else Jayapal said is operative – and critical – from a broader perspective.
“I don’t think we’re starting from scratch,” Jayapal said. “We know, actually, exactly what different parties want.”
It may not be known exactly, but White House officials have a good idea of what elements from the overall package can survive a Manchin scrub. The matter of putting them all together, battling out efforts by Democrats to press for more than Manchin wants and – perhaps most importantly – keeping progressive senators on board, underscores that’s it not as simple as pulling pieces off the shelf and rolling.
But the general outline of the deal is, in the words of one senior administration official, “not exactly a state secret here.”
A Biden quote to remember
Biden said something in his first news conference as president that unintentionally applies somewhat here.
“It’s a matter of timing,” Biden said in March of last year. “Successful presidents – better than me – have been successful, in large part, because they know how to time what they’re doing – order it, decide and prioritize what needs to be done.”
Again, Democrats wanted Build Back Better off their plates yesterday (or roughly four months ago.) But the decision to fully re-engage on the issue that served only to highlight party fractures will be one of the more delicate Biden has to make in the first few months of this year.
There is currently a clear and calculated effort to get behind – or give the space for – a series of bipartisan negotiations that are taking place.
The central White House legislative push has been on an economic and manufacturing bill designed to increase competition with China. That push resulted in House passage of one version and is critical to the urgency behind the move toward a conference to reconcile that measure with the bipartisan Senate version.
The top appropriators in both chambers this week reached an outline agreement that moves them closer toward a full-year funding package – something several Republicans viewed as impossible so long as Build Back Better was center stage.
That spending deal, should it get across the finish line, just so happens to be Manchin’s stated top priority.
Manchin’s other focus? The bipartisan efforts to draft legislation to reform the Electoral Count Act and provide protections for election administrators and workers on the state level.
Neither is a sure thing, but Wednesday’s agreement marked the most substantial progress on a spending agreement to date. And White House officials are more than happy to give the bipartisan group of senators, led by Sen. Susan Collins, the Maine Republican, space to bloom into something Biden can sign.
“If Build Back Better is sucking up all the oxygen, these don’t move,” one Democrat engaged in the current efforts told CNN. “Nobody wants it to die, but legislative calendar needed this space.”
Asked if Build Back Better moving to the back burner opened the door to other bipartisan efforts, one GOP senator told CNN: “I don’t think it’s a secret our guys want that dead and buried.”
What about wounded and on life support? “Our guys also want to get stuff done and have priorities,” the aide said. “If it rises from the dead, we’ll be there to fight it again.”
The strategy laid out here, while it appears to be paying dividends on other key pieces of Biden’s agenda, isn’t exactly a choice. It’s a necessity.
That became true as soon as Manchin pulled the plug on the original iteration of the package. It grew more acute when Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, a New Mexico Democrat, suffered a stroke and had to be admitted to the hospital. While his office says he will likely return in the next four to six weeks, without him Manchin could write his version of the perfect bill and the White House and Democratic leaders would still be a vote short.
Add to that the unexpected number one priority: filling a Supreme Court opening.
For a White House that closed 2021 at a low point in public polling and facing no shortage of questions about Biden’s political and policy fortunes in the midterm year ahead, it’s the rare surprise West Wing officials are grateful for – and probably dream about.
Taking the focus away from what will be a historic selection of the first Black woman nominated for the court is the last thing officials want to do.
The oldest congressional leadership adage in the book is when you have the votes, you vote. This moment, perhaps, requires a less concise, but no less obvious, addendum: When there is literally no pathway to have the votes and you have a much better political issue on the table, don’t relaunch the intra-party war with no clear outcome just for the sake of doing it.
None of this means the next run at Biden’s economic and climate package will make it across the finish line.
Assuming anything will ripen over time given the fluid nature of domestic and, particularly now, geopolitical dynamics is not ideal. Lujan’s health underscores the fragility of Democratic majorities.
Even if everything is timed perfectly and everyone is healthy, Manchin may never end up getting on board – something several Democratic senators have wondered in recent weeks. “There’s always something,” one senator told CNN of Manchin’s objections throughout the process.
In an ideal world Build Back Better would’ve been signed into law last fall. Or before Thanksgiving. Or before Christmas. But for Democrats, this is not an ideal world.
Member health. Lack of trust. The potential for a war in Europe. Those are just a few of the road blocks to getting anything done. More will inevitably surface that Democrats aren’t even thinking about right now.
But here’s one thing to remember: so many of Biden’s first term goals run through having some iteration of Build Back Better signed into law. Whether on health care, or childcare or – and this isn’t emphasized enough as the most critical – on climate, getting nothing is devastating to the administration’s broader goals and ambitions.
The least important point
Since Manchin labeled Build Back Better as “dead,” there has been talk a new name for the forthcoming effort.
To make this as abundantly clear as possible: This really doesn’t matter unless you’re a merchandise vendor who specialized in BBB-related gear.
Asked if it was something the White House would consider, White House press secretary Jen Psaki put it succinctly: “Sure.”
The legislative morass – and Biden’s sheer desperation to distance himself from it – is a central reason the President’s role in the legislative process will be deliberately opaque for the foreseeable future.
Biden referenced, in his nearly two-hour January news conference, what had been a central point of internal discussions in the West Wing for several weeks at the end of the year. The public wasn’t looking for a president-senator. They were looking for a president.
So, while Biden has spoken to Manchin by phone (and spoken to several senators over the course of the last two weeks about the Supreme Court nomination, including GOP Sens. Collins and Mitt Romney, officials said), the White House did not plan to read out each and every conversation.
“We’re just not going to speak to or confirm any conversations the President has with members of the Senate, moving forward,” Psaki said last month.
Biden is still an integral part of the legislative process, and aides are aware whenever things kick back into gear on his economic and climate package, will still likely have be the one to close any deal with Manchin.
But his role in the weeks ahead will be in public, both on the road and at the White House, with a primary focus on the elements of his agenda that have gotten across the finish line.
In Biden’s last few road trips, Build Back Better has been in his remarks. But unlike the month prior, it appears toward the end. There’s still a focus on urgency and necessity when he delivers what has become his regular pitch on the key elements of the bill, but to some degree the cornerstone domestic agenda proposal now serves as a coda for all that has already been done.
Explaining why Biden is still talking BBB
Biden will travel to Richmond, Virginia, Thursday for a public event focused on a key piece of his economic and climate package: provisions to lower the cost of prescription drugs.
Biden held an event with energy executives on Wednesday to highlight pieces of the substantial climate provisions in the bill. Pelosi, as mentioned, also highlighted the package throughout the day.
The why here isn’t a singular explanation. Broadly, for the same reason it still resides in Biden’s scripted remarks each time he gives them, it’s to underscore that the package isn’t dead.
Both the prescription drugs piece and the hundreds of billions to fight climate change pass muster with Manchin, as do provisions to increase Affordable Care Act subsidies to address health care costs.
Touting those - as opposed to say, free community college or the expanded child tax credit (one of which is definitely dead, the other is tenuous at best) – isn’t completely out of left field.
But the dynamics of Biden’s visit are also important to grasp here. He’ll be appearing with Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat with a tough midterm race (though one made less challenging by redistricting.)
Biden personally called Spanberger to try and get her to “yes” when House Democrats was in the process of passing its version of the package. Biden’s call followed Spanberger’s very memorable comment – one that rapidly pinged around the West Wing – to The New York Times that “nobody elected him to be FDR, they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos.” Biden, it should be noted, joked about the comment when the two spoke, people familiar with the call said.
To put it plainly: Spanberger took a tough vote on a bill that hasn’t moved in the Senate – a vote Biden personally asked her to have his back on. Biden is going to hit the road with her – and plans to tout one of, if not the, most popular pieces of the entire package.
Explaining why Pelosi is still talking about BBB
First and foremost, House Democrats passed the bill. While it hasn’t yet reached Biden’s desk, House Democrats held up their end of the bargain.
House Democrats also, last week, passed their version of the China competitiveness legislation.
Pay close attention to what Pelosi was specifically talking about on Wednesday – both in her public remarks and in her letter to her colleagues – and it’s clear there’s another reason.
The Consumer Price Index is set for its monthly release Thursday. It’s is projected, according to economists, to show a 7.2% annual advance in prices – the highest since 1982.
Inflation is high. Period. White House officials are bracing for the same thing they’ve braced for several months now: CPI data that once again lays that bare.
Congressional Democrats are as well.
It’s part of the reason the China legislation, after months in limbo after a sizable bipartisan Senate vote, has finally moved to center stage – it takes direct aim at one of the critical drivers of supply chain and inflation issues related to semi-conductor chip shortages.
But if you’re looking for an explanation of Pelosi’s BBB references, note that they were all tied to, in Pelosi’s words from the letter, “fighting inflation.” There are, of course, pretty significant limits to what the federal government can do to “fight inflation” – that’s the Fed’s purview.
But the Democratic theory of the case is that Build Back Better, as structured, would broaden productivity in a way that would address longer term inflationary pressures. The financing for the bill would also cover its outlays, at least if the tax enforcement element nets out the way White House officials project.
Without wandering too much deeper into the weeds on the merits of the BBB-counters-inflation argument pushed for months, the existence of that argument is the reason Pelosi appeared focused on the package on Wednesday, a day before the newest inflation data is released.
The wild card
Therein lies another piece of the value to hold off on the immediate effort to re-engage in search of a deal.
Inflation was, is and always has been a central component of Manchin’s resistance to the broader package. No number of pay-fors, or letters from economists, or Congressional Budget Office analyses have dented his belief that the package is simply too large on the spending side at a moment of high inflation.
Manchin has never laid out an explicit trigger for what level he would need to see inflation hit before he’d be ready to deal. But it’s clear the current level – and likely the level laid out by the CPI data on Thursday – isn’t helping the Democratic cause.
Yet Biden’s economic team has informed him that their view is inflation is either at, or just past, its peak and should start decelerating in the months ahead, according to two officials. With the word “transitory” now firmly residing in the ash heap of history, officials are exceedingly cautions to make any public declarations about what lies ahead.
But if there is a clear deceleration in the next few months, it certainly wouldn’t hurt their case with Manchin.
The elements of a deal
With things on hold for the time being, the specific of what could or would be in any final agreement don’t really exist.
But for the sake of gaming things out, here’s how several key players in the process have laid out their thinking about where things could eventually land.
Manchin floated an outline before talks fell apart that is no longer considered on the table, but is still helpful in informing what’s possible. His public comments, though they have grown more general in recent weeks, have outlined things as well. That’s what most of the discussions centered around with the people involved in the process (all of whom acknowledge there isn’t an actual “process” at the moment.)
- Universal pre-kindergarten
- Child care subsidies
- Affordable Care Act subsidies
- Prescription drug provisions
- Climate change provisions
The scale of the programs may be reduced from Biden’s initial proposals in the effort to address Manchin’s demand for permanence. And the number of proposals would be dependent on where Manchin sets his topline, which had been roughly $1.75 trillion. (That, of course, remains and open question. As one person involved in the drafting asked: “Do we assume he’s still there? Is he at a trillion now? It’s a little tough to know exactly.”)
An under-appreciated element here is that the most complicated aspect of what Manchin wants is on the revenue side. His preferences clash directly with changes made explicitly to address fellow moderate Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s concerns.
In other words, Manchin is broadly in line with Biden’s initial tax hikes. It’s the changes made to bring Sinema on board that moved away from where Manchin wants to be on that front.
That means the outlines for a deal aren’t really a secret. The financing, however, is a bit more of a knot than people seem to realize.