Democrats hope to salvage Biden's agenda on Manchin's terms

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In the wake of a failed effort to pass voting rights legislation, Democrats are turning their attention back to reviving President Biden's stalled Build Back Better Act, which hit a wall in December when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced he couldn't support it.

Biden gave the legislation new momentum this week when he announced he's willing to sign whatever "chunks" of the climate and social spending bill can get through Congress.

Democratic lawmakers say they're willing to concede more ground to Manchin in order to get something passed into law, even though it will fall well short of the ambitious vision they announced last year.

"I think we should tell Sen. Manchin, 'You won, write the bill and tell us what you can support,'" said one Democratic senator, who requested anonymity to discuss party strategy. "That way he would stop dancing around."

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said he wouldn't put Manchin's victory so bluntly, but acknowledged that the West Virginia senator is in the driver's seat.

"At this point we are willing to look at any proposal that can get 50 votes in our caucus. We're at that point where we really need to take a look at what can get that 50 votes and I think Sen. Manchin has been pretty clear about his concerns and priorities," he said.

Manchin on Thursday told reporters that he's ready to rip up the Build Back Better Act. "We're going to start with a clean sheet of paper and start over," he said.

Manchin dismissed the idea that any proposals are guaranteed to be included in any package he's likely to support, insisting that negotiators will "just be starting from scratch."

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday suggested dropping the name "Build Back Better" to help the talks get off to a fresh start.

"What the president calls 'chunks' I would hope would be a major bill going forward. It may be more limited, but it is still significant," she said.

It's quite a reversal from last year, when Democrats promised Build Back Better would be a transformational bill that would tackle income inequality by increasing taxes on the wealthy and dramatically expanding an array of social services.

In the end, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) was forced to drop what were thought to be consensus proposals, such as raising the corporate tax rate and the top marginal income tax rate.

Several Democrats say a lot of work has already been done on core elements of the bill and that much of it still can be salvaged.

"The good news is that 90 percent we're in agreement on, let's get that done," Cardin said. "There's enough here of common agreement that we should be able to get to the finish line."

Democratic senators say they believe they can get Manchin and fellow centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) to support a bill focused on climate-related provisions such as the clean manufacturing tax credit, a compromise proposal to lower the cost of prescription drugs, and funding for child care and universal pre-kindergarten.

"There are some clean energy tax provisions that it's my understanding Sen. Manchin has always supported that would make a huge difference in terms of the competitiveness of our economy and accelerate cleaner energy technology deployment. I think it would be great if we can move that," said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a key ally of Biden's on Capitol Hill.

"I support moving forward as much of the Build Back Better bill as we can," he added.

Coons cited compromise language to reduce the cost of prescription drugs and funding for universal pre-K as likely candidates to include in a final bill, along with a package of tax incentives and funding to address climate change.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) said he thinks a proposal negotiated with Manchin to reduce methane emissions could still be included in a bill that passes under the budget reconciliation process.

"I thought we had a good agreement on a methane reduction program a month, a month and a half ago," he said. "I asked my staff to reach out to their counterparts in Sen. Manchin's [office] to make sure we're still good to go."

One of the biggest sticking points is the fate of the enhanced child tax credit, which Democrats passed as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and expired last month.

The talks between Manchin and the White House fell apart in December after Manchin balked at a one-year extension of the tax credit, insisting that a 10-year extension be included instead so that voters would know how much the proposal would really add to the federal debt.

Democrats involved in negotiations now say they think Manchin could be persuaded to agree to a three- or four-year extension that would allow the child tax credit to be included without crowding out other spending priorities.

When Biden pressed the reset button on the spending package Wednesday, he said, "I'm confident we can get pieces - big chunks of Build Back Better signed into law."

Biden said he thinks he can get 50 Senate votes for more than $500 billion in funding "for energy and environmental issues" and universal pre-K.

"Joe Manchin strongly supports early education, 3 and 4 years of age. Strongly supports that," he said, adding that there's also "strong support" for proposals to pay for it, such as a minimum corporate tax.

The president said elements of Build Back Better that get dropped from the negotiations could be included in future legislation.

"I think we can break the package up, get as much as we can now, and come back and fight for the rest later," he said.

Pelosi said Thursday that the "chunks" would still need to be part of one bill in order to move it through the budget reconciliation process and bypass almost certain Republican opposition.

Manchin gave environmental activists hope earlier this month when he singled out the climate-related provisions of Build Back Better as the least controversial elements of the package.

"I think that the climate thing is one that we probably can come to agreement much easier than anything else," he said.

But other Democratic senators say they don't see much chance of a climate-only bill passing in lieu of Build Back Better. They predict the legislation will need to include other priorities such as expanded health care subsidies, child care funding, pre-K and prescription drug pricing reform.

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