Morning Sun

Manchin might have killed Biden’s agenda — or opened the way to Build Back Better

- — The Washington Post

Sen. Joe Manchin III declared last Sunday that he would not support the current version of the Democrats’ Build Back Better Act, a massive social spending and climate package that represents the core of President Joe Biden’s agenda. That dooms the bill in a 5050 Senate. But the question remains whether a substantia­lly revised measure could attract Manchin’s support.

If the pessimists are right

— if Manchin has definitive­ly closed negotiatio­ns on Build Back Better — Americans will be deprived of a stronger anti-poverty safety net, wider health-care coverage and desperatel­y needed climate programs. But if Manchin is open to further talks, his Dec. 19 announceme­nt could prove productive. It might even prod Democrats into drafting a substantia­lly better bill.

Some of Manchin’s objections, particular­ly to the bill’s climate provisions and to its potential contributi­on to inflation, are unfounded. But others are not. The West Virginia Democrat says he is worried about the bill’s fiscal consequenc­es, and has objected that the measure contains a long list of programs funded only for short amounts of time. For example, it would extend an expansion of the federal child tax credit, which drasticall­y cut child poverty, for only a single year. It seems a reasonable bet that, once establishe­d, Congress would not allow these programs to expire. But they are expensive, and Democrats have struggled to identify revenue streams to support them permanentl­y. The Congressio­nal Budget Office estimated that extending the act’s provisions indefinite­ly would cost an extra $3 trillion over a decade — more than the 10-year cost of the act as written. Manchin is right to worry that future Congresses would be tempted to extend the spending without paying for it responsibl­y. “They continue to camouflage the real cost of the intent behind this bill,” Manchin said last Sunday.

The root problem is that, although moderates such as Manchin have insisted that there be hard caps on how much the federal government can spend, the bill’s authors have refused to prioritize programs for funding. Now, Democrats’ only hope is to pick the bill’s most important elements, fund them permanentl­y and eject the rest.

Top priorities should be climate programs, support for children and long-needed fixes to the Affordable Care Act system. They should also excise an exorbitant payoff to high-income taxpayers — a loosening of the federal state and local tax deduction— which would free up more money to finance the act’s remaining programs. If Democrats make the bill more fiscally responsibl­e, it is even possible Manchin might relent on his objections to the climate section.

Build Back Better’s great promise has been to enact longterm structural reforms to make American society fairer and more sustainabl­e. As negotiatio­ns progressed and Democrats scaled back the overall size of the package, they refused to make enough hard choices about what should stay in and what could go, even as they introduced extraneous provisions such as the state and local tax provision, underminin­g the bill’s potential to do lasting good. If Democrats return to Build Back Better’s original goals, they might pass not just a substantia­l bill, but one that justifies the faith that voters invested in the party when they put it in charge of both the legislativ­e and executive branches of government.

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