Enthusiasm wanes as Biden’s $1.75 trillion social welfare bill is delayed, watered down

Democrats are beginning to wonder if President Biden’s $1.75 trillion social welfare legislation is worth the effort, especially after a lone holdout has watered down the bill and delayed its passage until next year.

Lawmakers say Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, has forced the White House to trim the size and scope of the spending bill to a point that it no longer matches its original purpose.

“This was supposed to be the most transformative piece of legislation since the New Deal. We name it [the] Build Back Better [Act] for a reason,” said one Democratic senator, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “Now it’s a shadow of what we hoped it would be: bold climate change initiatives are out, paid family leave is out, expanding Medicare to cover dental and vision benefits is out.”

While most Democrats say they still support the spending bill, their enthusiasm has waned significantly as debate has dragged on and favored programs have been cut.

“We need to take the holiday break and figure out what’s in the bill,” the senator added. “Frankly, I don’t know anymore and that’s a problem.”

Mr. Manchin this week upended negotiations over the bill by demanding that Democrats extend the child tax credit for the next decade instead of the current one year.

Mr. Biden initially expanded the credit, which gives parents with children under the age of 18 between $250 and $300 in monthly direct payments, as a temporary measure to help deal with the fallout of the coronavirus. Given the program’s popularity, the White House sought to make the expansion permanent in its initial version of Build Back Better, which ran upwards of $3 trillion.  

Those plans had to be scrapped once Mr. Manchin asserted the bill’s price tag could be no higher than $1.75 trillion. Instead of making the expansion permanent, Mr. Biden opted to extend it for only another year.

Democratic lawmakers say Mr. Manchin signed off on that compromise before reversing course in recent weeks.

“Apparently, Manchin’s approach to this has changed a lot,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, Illinois Democrat. “I don’t know where he is today or where he’ll be tomorrow.”

Mr. Manchin contends that the White House should amend the Build Back Better bill to make all parts of the program run over the next 10 years. Allies say that Mr. Manchin, who supports the program, is concerned that it will be too popular in the future to jettison.

“It shouldn’t just be one year here, three years here, five years there,” Mr. Manchin said. “I think it would be very transparent for the public to see … it should be 10 years.”

Making the child tax credit run over the next decade would cost at least $1.5 trillion. To make that work and stay under the $1.75 trillion ceiling Mr. Manchin has imposed would mean proposing new tax increases to pay for the bill or slashing funding for other programs.

Neither option is particularly appealing or viable. At least one moderate Democrat, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, has ruled out raising the income tax rate on individuals and corporations to pay for Build Back Better.

“I want to make sure that if we are crafting legislation, we’re doing it in the lean and efficient way that’s fiscally responsible and doesn’t impact things like inflation or make our businesses less competitive,” Ms. Sinema said.

Similarly, progressives are chafing at the ever-increasing list of programs gutted from the bill, including an immigration overhaul and free college tuition.

“History will take note of those who for so long have championed delivering for our communities, but have delivered nothing but inaction, empty promises and dreams deferred,” said Rep. Chuy Garcia, Illinois Democrat.

As the spending bill began to stall last month, Mr. Biden began privately lobbying Mr. Manchin to drop his opposition. The talks, which lasted for days, came up short.

The White House has received only a commitment from Mr. Manchin that the overall price tag of $1.75 trillion is adequate. There has been little agreement on the scope of the bill’s social welfare programs or how long they should run.

“Sen. Manchin has reconfirmed to President Biden his willingness to pass a bill that is at the same scale as the framework they agreed on months ago,” said Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who is the administration’s top ally in Congress. “That’s roughly $1.75 trillion over a number of years. That is a significant piece of legislation.”

While Mr. Manchin has taken most of the blame from Democrats for the bill stalling, Mr. Biden has not emerged unscathed.

Far-left Democrats, who voted for Build Back Better in the House last month, say the president over-promised when saying he could bring the Senate on board. Now when faced with the reality of Mr. Manchin’s intransigence, Mr. Biden is not mobilizing the full authority of his office behind the legislation, they say.

“People want to ‘but Manchin’ everyone to death, but learned helplessness is not a disposition that inspires confidence or support,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New York Democrat. “The president has tools at his disposal. Leadership has tools at their disposal. If it really is just 1-2 votes, the Senate should force a vote on [Build Back Better].”


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