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Opinion | Joe Manchin Just Did Democrats a Favor on Build Back Better

Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia seemingly dealt a terrible setback to President Biden’s agenda on Sunday, when he told Bret Baier of Fox News that he could not support the version of the Build Back Better Act passed by the House last month. Although Democrats were rightfully frustrated by the way in which Mr. Manchin expressed his concerns, he was raising a valid critique: This bill was deeply flawed, and the “compromises” his colleagues made did nothing to address the concerns he has been consistently raising since this summer.

Other Democrats may not realize it, but Mr. Manchin may well have given them a gift. They should’ve gone back to the drawing board months ago, when it first became clear that their budgetary gimmickry was turning the bill into a confusing mess. Now, they will have to — and if they revise the bill to cut the number of programs they propose while making the ones they do propose permanent and easier for Americans to navigate, it could deliver Democrats both lasting policy change and the political victory they so desperately need.

Democrats had been trimming the bill for months in an effort to meet Mr. Manchin’s demand that it cost less than $2 trillion over the next decade. But rather than focusing on a few top priorities, they wedged almost every major social program Mr. Biden had proposed into the bill and relied on arbitrary expiration dates to make it seem less expensive. As a result, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, these programs would cost more than $4.7 trillion if made permanent, as every supporter of the bill clearly intends them to be.

This structure sets Democrats up for failure. Extending these programs without adding to the national debt would likely require raising taxes by an additional $3 trillion over the next decade, which would be extremely difficult to do, particularly after Democrats incorporate all of the tax increases they could get consensus for into the Build Back Better Act. If Democrats cannot agree on how to continue paying for their major social programs, the only alternative — besides breaking their promise not to add to the deficit — would be to allow those programs to expire after a few short years.

Not only would this scenario deny new families tens of thousands of dollars in benefits they would have gotten if they had had children only a few years earlier, many families may never receive these benefits in the first place. Many programs in the Build Back Better Act require state and local governments to implement them, and local officials in both parties have already said they may not commit resources to programs for which federal support may vanish just a couple years after being created.

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Unlike those on the left now unleashing their righteous wrath on Mr. Manchin, I have long sympathized with his objections to this approach, as well as his concerns about inflation and the unsustainable growth of our national debt.

But I believe abandoning Mr. Biden’s agenda would be a massive mistake. There is a clear path forward to deliver a historically significant, fiscally responsible bill that supports working families, expands access to affordable health care and combats the climate crisis. If the president wants this bill to be his legacy, he must urge Congress to stop playing games with expiration dates and do fewer things better — starting with making them permanent.

Progressives and centrists will both have to forego some items on their legislative wish list. Many worthwhile policy ambitions, such as creating a national paid family leave program or extending a recent expansion of the Child Tax Credit, which has already lifted millions of children out of poverty, will need to be dramatically scaled back or tabled altogether. But the policies that do get enacted will be more successful, more popular and more durable as a result, which can help lay the groundwork for building on them in the future. It would also leave Democrats with a bill that is more focused and easier to explain to voters than the current version, which Republicans are already portraying as a “progressive grab bag.”

In October, my organization, the Progressive Policy Institute, published a blueprint for such a focused package that prioritized expanding the Child Tax Credit, making preschool universally available, strengthening the Affordable Care Act and combating climate change. That approach now has renewed interest from key Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, who leads the Finance Committee in the Senate and will be responsible for writing many of the final bill’s key provisions, released a statement on Sunday listing three top spending priorities: the expanded Child Tax Credit, subsidies for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act and incentives for reducing carbon emissions from all energy sources.

That same day, Representative Suzan DelBene of Washington, who presides over the 97-member New Democrat Coalition that will be crucial for passing the final bill through the House, released a statement embracing nearly identical priorities and reiterating her coalition’s preference for “doing a few things well for longer,” which is also the approach Mr. Manchin has demanded.

The only major sticking point now seems to be the expanded Child Tax Credit. Last week, Mr. Manchin reportedly told Mr. Biden he would support a $1.8 trillion package that omitted the credit but included long-term versions of Mr. Wyden and Ms. DelBene’s other top priorities, as well as a universal prekindergarten program. Those policies combined would cost roughly $1.2 trillion over 10 years, which means that if Democrats can compromise on additional priorities that cost less than $600 billion, whether that’s a modified Child Tax Credit expansion or other permanent programs, they will have produced a transformative bill that fits within the parameters Mr. Manchin supports. Importantly, these permanent policies would not increase budget deficits or inflationary pressures because they can be fully paid for using only the tax increases and other offsets included in the Build Back Better Act.

Democrats have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve American society, not just for a few years, but permanently. Doing so would give them some clear victories they can point to with voters that lay the groundwork for future success. But to get such a package across the finish line, progressives and centrists — including both the White House and the senator from West Virginia — must stop pointing fingers, come back to the negotiating table, and compromise. America cannot afford for the Biden agenda to fail.

Ben Ritz (@BudgetBen) is the director of the Progressive Policy Institute’s Center for Funding America’s Future.

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