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Biden Agenda Sinks Under Its Own Ambitions

WASHINGTON — President Biden’s plan to stuff nearly every long-held Democratic priority into his signature domestic policy bill has buckled under the weight of its ambitions, with the final senator needed to push it over the finish line balking at its scope, its cost and its clever financing.

For months, Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia has warned the president and congressional leaders that he was uncomfortable with the breadth of what had become a $2.2 trillion bill to fight climate change, continue monthly checks to parents, establish universal prekindergarten and invest in a wide range of spending and tax cuts targeting child care, affordable housing, home health care and more.

Over the past week, he has insisted that the bill shrink to fit the framework of less than $2 trillion that Mr. Biden announced this fall, and that — crucially — the legislation not use budget gimmicks to artificially lower the bill’s impact on the federal budget deficit. Mr. Manchin said he feared the bill could further fuel rapid inflation and saddle future generations with debt.

On Sunday, Mr. Manchin dealt Mr. Biden’s current ambitions a final blow. “I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I can’t get there.”

In a statement issued shortly after that interview, Mr. Manchin said he could not move ahead with what he called “this mammoth piece of legislation.”

“I cannot take that risk with a staggering debt of more than $29 trillion and inflation taxes that are real and harmful to every hard-working American at the gasoline pumps, grocery stores and utility bills with no end in sight,” he said.

White House officials, who along with party leaders have spent weeks trying to bring Mr. Manchin to a place of comfort with Mr. Biden’s bill, appeared betrayed by the senator’s declaration.

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said in a statement on Sunday that Mr. Manchin had last week personally submitted to the president an outline for a bill “that was the same size and scope as the President’s framework, and covered many of the same priorities” and that he had promised to continue discussions toward an agreement.

“If his comments on Fox and written statement indicate an end to that effort,” Ms. Psaki said, “they represent a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position, and a breach of his commitments to the president and the senator’s colleagues in the House and Senate.”

Republicans celebrated Mr. Manchin’s statement as evidence that the bill, which Democrats were attempting to pass along party lines, was bad policy that even their own party could not get behind.

But Mr. Manchin has left at least the possibility of a path forward, albeit not the one that Mr. Biden initially set out to travel. Some Democrats and White House officials believe there is still a chance to recast the bill to suit Mr. Manchin’s demands, and to possibly pass it in the first months of next year.

Such an effort would start with responding to the concerns Mr. Manchin has long expressed, including dropping some spending efforts in order to focus on a smaller list of programs that would last a full decade and be paid for largely by raising taxes on high earners and large corporations.

That would force the White House to make difficult choices about which party priorities to leave on the cutting room floor — a decision that would undoubtedly anger progressive Democratic lawmakers and many of those who voted for Mr. Biden, who ran on much of the agenda contained in what is commonly called the Build Back Better bill.

Mr. Biden began the year with a $4 trillion agenda to overhaul the government’s role in the economy, fight climate change and invest in America’s children. He sliced off some of it for a bipartisan infrastructure bill he signed into law this fall, and has whittled down the rest in negotiations with moderates and progressives in his party, which controls the House and Senate by exceedingly narrow margins.

This fall the president believed he had found the sweet spot. Shortly before traveling to meet with world leaders in Rome and attend a global climate summit in Scotland, he announced a framework that he said would be able to get House majority support and 50 votes, the bare minimum to pass using a parliamentary process called budget reconciliation, in the Senate. Ms. Psaki said Sunday that Mr. Manchin had told the president in a face-to-face meeting in Wilmington, Del., that he would support that framework.

As they scaled back the bill, Democratic leaders had essentially two choices. They could focus on a few programs, like tax credits for climate change, an expanded benefit for parents that is meant to fight child poverty and making pre-K free for 3- and 4-year-olds across the country. Or they could pack as many programs as possible into the bill, setting some of them to expire after as little as a year in order to avoid ballooning the budget deficit, and hope that lawmakers would extend them in the future.

Leaders chose the “pack-it-in” strategy, in part because so many interest groups in their coalition, like environmentalists, early childhood advocates and labor unions, had competing priorities for the legislation. Budget hawks like the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and centrist Democratic groups like the Progressive Policy Institute urged a more targeted approach: fewer programs, but made permanent.

Mr. Manchin, who is perhaps the most prominent deficit hawk left in the Democratic Party, worried that temporary spending would become permanent without offsets, adding to the debt. Republicans stoked his fears by asking the Congressional Budget Office to analyze an imaginary Build Back Better bill in which every program was permanent — and, not surprisingly, it showed ballooning deficits as a result.

White House officials pushed back hard on those projections, insisting that Mr. Biden would not extend any programs without offsets. But Mr. Manchin appears to have been unmoved. Ms. Psaki accused him of reversing his position on the bill, and vowed to press on: “We will not relent in the fight to help Americans with their child care, health care, prescription drug costs, and elder care — and to combat climate change,” she said. “The fight for Build Back Better is too important to give up. We will find a way to move forward next year.”

But there appears to be only one route left for Mr. Biden if he hopes to win over the final holdout vote: Jettison some of those spending programs and make the rest permanent.

It is not clear which programs Mr. Biden would favor in that situation, though White House officials have long insisted that the bill must include robust action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Congressional Democrats have also prioritized extending the expanded child tax credit, created by the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill Mr. Biden signed in March, though the credit would likely need to be modified in order to avoid consuming most of the bill with its cost. Other groups have urged Mr. Biden to focus largely on efforts to help children, like prekindergarten.

Such a prioritization would bring risks of its own. Interest groups could decline to back the bill. Progressive lawmakers could threaten to vote against it. Those are risks the White House was not willing to navigate earlier this year as they crafted the bill. Mr. Manchin is forcing the administration to confront them now.

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