Democrats are trying to resurrect their social legislation after Manchin dealt it a near-fatal blow.
They're eyeing child-tax-credit changes that he suggested.
An architect of the child tax credit said "I just don't know" about getting Manchin's vote.
President Joe Biden staked the vast majority of his agenda on his $2 trillion Build Back Better legislation expanding the nation's safety net and combating the climate emergency. It was always going to be a perilous endeavor to muscle the package through with only Democratic votes and narrow majorities in the House and Senate.
Reality came crashing down on the White House Sunday, when Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia went on Fox News to put a dagger into the sprawling social and climate measure.
"I've tried everything humanly possible. I can't get there," he said, adding: "This is a no on this legislation."
Manchin's opposition effectively put him on the same side as the Republican Party, which unanimously opposes it — and fed speculation that Manchin would leave the Democratic Party. Democrats are now scrambling to revive the legislation and take a new whack at getting the West Virginia Democrat's vote.
"I think there's a lot of good work that's been put in this bill, but there are things that can be changed and things that can be improved," Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado said in an interview.
"It is also the case when you're trying to pass the reconciliation bill with 50 votes plus one that everybody's going to have a say about that," he said, referring to the party-line process Democrats are using. Without Manchin's vote, Democrats can't approve the bill in the 50-50 Senate.
At the center of the dispute is the expanded child tax credit, which provides up to $300 a month per child to most families. It represents the cornerstone of Democrats' efforts to slash child poverty, and they want to expand it another year. Final checks for the measure have already been sent out.
Manchin has criticized the benefit, saying in a Monday radio interview that only families with taxable incomes should qualify for the program. He also wants to make it easier for grandparents to tap the initiative, saying Democrats "won't even talk" about smoothing the process for those taking care of their grandchildren.
Under current law, grandparents are eligible to receive a monthly check if they've claimed their grandchildren as dependents for at least six months. To assuage Manchin's concerns, a key Democrat said he was in the early stages of designing a grandparent fix so it's easier for them to access the credit without having to claim any dependents.
"I think we can include that," Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said in an interview. "What we're doing is kind of streamlining the way forward that would include grandparents playing a bigger kind of role."
Democrats at one point included those changes in an early version of the House bill. But they were scrapped because the time needed to institute them would have probably outpaced the proposed one-year length of the monthly check program. Now they're back in play.
"With a longer-term CTC expansion back on the table, it's not crazy to put the eligibility adjustments back in the mix as well," Andy Boardman, a research assistant at the Urban Institute, told Insider.
'We're obviously going to have to rewrite the bill'
Democrats have an enormous challenge ahead. Getting a bill to Biden's desk will require what many in the party view as painful sacrifices to satisfy Manchin's $1.75 trillion ceiling on fresh government spending with all planned programs running 10 years.
"I think we're all at least over the initial shock," one Democratic aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly said, adding: "We're obviously going to have to rewrite the bill. This isn't just changes around the edges. This is restructuring."
The legislation would have also set up universal pre-K, established federal subsidies for childcare, helped combat the climate emergency, and more. Democrats want to finance it with new taxes on rich Americans and large corporations paying little or no federal taxes.
Some Democrats are starting to float difficult cuts. Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, the House Budget Committee chair, said in a Bloomberg interview on Monday that $175 billion in affordable housing may be on the chopping block.
Many Democrats are squirming at the thought of negotiations slowing to a crawl, particularly as campaigns for the 2022 midterm elections start heating up and their focus shifts to their home states and districts.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he was moving ahead with a plan to put the House bill to a vote in the upper chamber unless Democrats assembled another package capable of getting 50 votes first. It's meant to be a pressure tactic to force Senate Democrats to quickly straighten out disagreements on the size and scope of the plan.
"I know we are all frustrated at this outcome," Schumer told Democratic senators on a virtual caucus call, according to a Democratic official familiar with the call. "However, we are not giving up on BBB, period. We won't stop working on it until we pass a bill."
At one point, Manchin addressed his fellow Senate Democrats and raised his familiar litany of concerns about the legislation. He said he'd long been consistent on his views and didn't want any legislation to contribute to inflation or add to the national debt, CNN's Manu Raju reported.
Democrats, though, just still don't know what they're dealing with in regard to Manchin.
"I think Sen. Manchin changes his mind from time to time on this, which is his prerogative," Bennet told Insider. Bennet added that he wasn't going to give up in his efforts to try to persuade Manchin to back a renewal of the child-tax-credit benefit.
Bennet pitched Manchin on extending the child tax credit on the Senate floor last week, bringing charts to illustrate its influence on slashing hunger and child poverty. But it appeared to land with a thud given that Manchin stepped up his criticism of it afterward.
Asked if he thought the West Virginia Democrat could be brought on board with renewing the child-tax-credit expansion, Bennet replied: "I just don't know."
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