Is Joe Manchin About to Play the Role of Democratic Spoiler Again?

In the past two weeks, Joe Biden has attended a summit in Asia; flown to Texas to grieve with family members of the victims of the Uvalde gun massacre; met with the Fed chair, Jerome Powell, to discuss the inflation challenge; and announced a new weapons package for Ukraine. The President can’t be accused of slacking, but he and his party badly need a domestic political win. Just conceivably, there could be one in the offing—a new spending deal on Capitol Hill—but, as ever, much depends on Joe Manchin, a.k.a. Senator Roadblock.

On Tuesday, Manchin attended a meeting with the A.A.R.P. in West Virginia, then took to Twitter and called on his congressional colleagues to stand up for seniors and reduce the cost of prescription drugs. “By allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, capping the cost of insulin at $35 per month, and allowing the importation of drugs from Canada, we can lower prescription drug prices in America,” Manchin wrote. “We must take action & keep the promises we’ve made to our seniors.”

Not surprisingly, Manchin’s tweet sparked the fury of fellow-Democrats, particularly progressive ones. “You literally killed the bill to do this,” Representative Ilhan Omar, a member of the Squad, quote-tweeted. Warren Gunnels, a staff director for Bernie Sanders, also weighed in, writing, “What a phony. THE reason we failed to keep our promises to seniors is because @Sen_JoeManchin sabotaged the Build Back Better Act & refuses to end the filibuster.”

The point that Omar and Gunnels made was incontrovertible. Last November, Chuck Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader, announced that his Democratic colleagues, including Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, had agreed to include a prescription-drug package in the Build Back Better bill, which also featured tax hikes on the rich, tax credits for green energy, paid leave, and a range of other social programs. Under the prescription-drug plan, Medicare would have used its heft to negotiate lower prices for eligible medicines, price increases would have been limited for other drugs, and there would have been an annual cap on out-of-pocket costs for Medicare recipients. Thanks to Manchin, the Senate never got to vote on Build Back Better. With the Democratic caucus needing all of its fifty votes to pass a bill through the reconciliation process, he went on Fox News days before Christmas and declared, “I can’t get there.”

It’s no wonder that so many Democrats remain angry at Manchin, but they are also aware that he still has a vote, which could make prescription-drug reform and other Democratic priorities a reality. Last week, Manchin met with Schumer about the possibility of forging a new reconciliation bill focussed on three elements: prescription-drug reform, green-energy incentives, and a reversal of the feed-the-rich Trump-G.O.P. tax cuts.

While such a package would fall well short of the grand Democratic ambitions of 2021, each of its elements would represent a significant policy achievement—and together they would give Democratic candidates something substantial to highlight in the midterms. Americans currently pay some of the highest drug prices in the world, and millions of them struggle to afford their medications—insulin here costs roughly six times as much as it does in Canada and about nine times as much as it does in Britain. The need for green-energy incentives barely needs repeating. They are essential if the United States is to get anywhere near Biden’s goal of halving the country’s carbon emissions from their 2005 levels by 2030. And, at a time of historic inequality, the Trump-G.O.P. tax cuts for the rich were an abomination. Reversing the ones for corporations and the wealthy would make the tax system more equitable, and the taxes recovered could help finance the rest of the package.

Schumer and Manchin haven’t revealed many details of their conversations, and, after what happened last year, there is healthy skepticism that legislation could actually be enacted. But there’s still a glimmer of hope. “It’s not dead but it’s also not a certainty; we are trying,” one Democratic source on Capitol Hill told me.

One reason for skepticism is a tight timetable. When Congress returns from the Memorial Day break next week, it will have just six weeks of full sessions before the summer recess. If a new tax-and-spending bill is to materialize, its outlines would probably have to be agreed on this month; this is a big ask. To gain Manchin’s support, other Democrats would almost certainly be forced to accept a deficit-neutral, or even deficit-reducing, package. At a time of low interest rates, the economic arguments for financing long-term climate investments in this way are weak, but Manchin seems to be insisting on it.

For his part, the senator from West Virginia would have to agree not to sabotage the clean-energy part of the new bill, something he is certainly capable of doing. A longtime defender of the fossil-fuel industries, Manchin has set a goal of energy independence, which—it appears—means providing more financial incentives to the oil, gas, and coal industries. Many progressive Democrats adamantly oppose making such concessions, and for good reason. This looks like a recipe for another deadlock, but, as Bernie Sanders recently commented to Politico, the devil is in the details.

What role can Biden play in all this? Wary of repeating last year’s failure, he has so far confined himself to calling on Congress to pass prescription-drug reform and other priorities. That may be a smart move, but, if the talks between Schumer and Manchin become serious, Biden could play a vital role by marketing the new bill to the public—and, perhaps, to wary Democratic lawmakers. The prescription-drug element should be the easiest sell. With inflation eating into family budgets, it would help reduce the cost of living. And, by reducing Medicare outlays, it would also save taxpayers a lot of money: about three hundred billion dollars over ten years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

If all else fails, the Democrats could perhaps advance a stand-alone prescription-drug-reform bill before the elections, and try to pass it through reconciliation. In politics, as in other walks of life, something beats nothing, and prescription-drug reform would certainly be something. For now, though, the focus should be on trying to salvage something broader and avoiding a repeat of last year. As distasteful as dealing with Manchin might seem, it’s unavoidable. Last week, the senator told Axios that his preliminary talks with Schumer were “respectful” and “encouraging to a certain extent.” What did that mean? Will he play the spoiler again? Quite probably, but the next six or eight weeks will provide the answer.

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