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Progressives’ biggest fear about the Build Back Better Act has come to pass

There’s a reason they wanted the social spending bill tied to infrastructure.

House Democrats Meet Behind Closed Doors To Discuss Legislation With Pres. Biden
Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) speaks to reporters as she leaves a meeting with progressive House Democrats at the Capitol on October 28.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

For members of “the Squad,” a group of staunch progressives in the House, Sen. Joe Manchin’s statement opposing the Build Back Better Act didn’t come as a surprise. They’d long warned it was just a matter of time before Manchin derailed the bill if a vote on infrastructure legislation, which he supported, was held first.

It turns out they were right.

Manchin has previously voiced a variety of concerns about the massive climate and social spending bill, and has repeatedly demanded it be trimmed down. In an attempt to pressure the moderate senator to support the measure, progressives lobbied Democratic leaders to keep it linked to a vote on a massive infrastructure package known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, as that latter bill was seen as a priority for Manchin.

The bills were coupled for weeks but were eventually separated due to pressure from House moderates and an assurance from President Joe Biden that he’d secure a yes vote from Manchin on the Build Back Better Act. Most House progressives voted in favor of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework; in the end, the six House members in “the Squad” were the only ones within the Congressional Progressive Caucus who voted against it. At the time, they reiterated fears that passing the infrastructure bill first would give up any leverage they had to pressure moderate lawmakers like Manchin to consider the Build Back Better Act.

Just over a month after that vote, Manchin has told Fox News he’s “a no” on Build Back Better.

“We have been saying this for weeks that this would happen,” Squad member Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) said in an MSNBC interview on Sunday. “Having [the infrastructure bill and Build Back Better] coupled together was the only leverage we had. And what did the caucus do? We tossed it.”

Bush’s stance was echoed by other Squad members, like Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and it’s now clear these progressives were correct to be worried. Although it’s uncertain how open Manchin might be to a different version of the Build Back Better Act, his position has effectively doomed the current version.

Democrats are attempting to pass Build Back Better via a process known as budget reconciliation, which allows legislation to pass the Senate with a simple majority. They need all 50 members of the Senate Democratic caucus on board to approve it — a fragile unity that’s impossible to achieve without Manchin’s vote. That fact has given Manchin, the bill’s largest detractor in the Senate, a lot of say over its fate. Over the past few months, he’s shown he’s more than willing to make full use of that influence. He did so again Sunday, shaking what little faith many progressives had left in him.

“Maybe they’ll believe us next time. Or maybe people will just keep calling us naive,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) tweeted on Sunday.

Progressives have long feared that moderates would abandon Build Back Better without the infrastructure bill

For months, the Congressional Progressive Caucus emphasized that it wouldn’t move along the bipartisan infrastructure bill without a concurrent vote on the Build Back Better Act. Members worried that moderates including Manchin would potentially abandon the social spending legislation once infrastructure passed. They were able to issue this ultimatum because the House also has a thin Democratic majority and the Congressional Progressive Caucus has the numbers to keep any bill without Republican support from passing.

At the start of November, however, as pressure to pass the infrastructure bill grew from both the White House and impatient moderates, most members in the progressive caucus agreed to a compromise. Armed with a written agreement from House moderates agreeing to consider the Build Back Better Act once the Congressional Budget Office released a cost estimate, as well as Biden’s promise that he would get Manchin’s support, progressives allowed the infrastructure vote to move forward.

“The president’s word is on the line here, and I do still believe that he is going to do what he told me and what he told our caucus and what he told the country he would do,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), the chair of the Progressive Caucus, said in an MSNBC interview last week. Manchin “made a commitment to the president, the president made a commitment to us, and I believe we’re going to get it done.”

The White House said Manchin was still participating in negotiations as recently as Tuesday, and that Manchin had brought the president a more limited version of the bill he could support. (As Vox’s Andrew Prokop has explained, Manchin’s statements do not explicitly indicate whether he’s closed the door to negotiating on a different version of the Build Back Better plan.)

“If his comments on FOX and written statement indicate an end to that effort, they represent a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position, and a breach of his commitments to the President and the Senator’s colleagues in the House and Senate,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki wrote in a statement Sunday.

Jayapal, in the MSNBC interview last week, said she did not regret the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s decision to vote for the infrastructure bill when it did.

“I don’t regret it because I think our leverage was at the maximum point,” Jayapal said. “Had we not done that, I think we would have lost even more on Build Back Better.”

It’s impossible to say exactly what would have happened had progressives not chosen to put their trust in the president’s ability to seal a deal.

On one hand, questions have been raised about how much leverage progressives actually had throughout this process. Although Manchin helped negotiate the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, it was never clear whether he wanted it to pass so badly that he’d be willing to overlook his concerns about the size of the Build Back Better Act and many of its programs. It’s possible he would have been willing to vote down the social spending legislation even if that meant jeopardizing infrastructure legislation, too.

On the other hand, it did appear that the infrastructure legislation was a proposal that Manchin was invested in. He has long emphasized his support of bipartisanship and commitment to a measure addressing much-needed funding for roads and bridges that could garner both Democratic and Republican support. For that reason, the Squad is among those who now believe Democrats made a major miscalculation — one that not only potentially squandered a chance to pass Build Back Better quickly, but that has also put Democrats in a position in which further negotiation will be exponentially more difficult.

Manchin’s statement has damaged trust

Democrats are where they are now because of trust.

Progressives made a number of concessions on the Build Back Better Act, agreeing to a $3.5 trillion framework after initially proposing a $6 trillion option. Then they agreed to winnow it down further to $1.75 trillion, cutting some of their key priorities, including Medicare expansion of dental and vision coverage.

Throughout this process, willingness to move forward has relied on a sense that Manchin was participating in talks in good faith. And there was a sense that Biden, who has often touted the power of his personal relationship with Manchin, could find a way to get the senator to vote yes. For the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Manchin’s new statement seems to have shattered that trust.

“Today, Senator Manchin has betrayed his commitment not only to the President and Democrats in Congress but most importantly, to the American people,” caucus chair Jayapal said in a Sunday statement. “He routinely touts that he is a man of his word, but he can no longer say that.”

Now it will be more difficult to move forward. Progressives may feel less willing to compromise on provisions that remain outstanding in the bill, like drug pricing and Medicaid expansion, feeling that further compromise won’t net them anything from Manchin.

Manchin has also created confusion about what he wants, making it difficult for Democratic leaders to know where they should restart negotiations. It’s unclear if he simply doesn’t like the current shape of the Build Back Better Act and would be willing to vote for the proposal he brought to Biden recently, or if he’s now a no on any more spending.

The senator has placed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in a tough position as well. Schumer is under increasing pressure from his caucus to simply bring a vote on the Build Back Better Act to the floor of the Senate, in hopes of forcing Manchin to vote yes.

The weeks to come will reveal if Manchin is willing to consider a version of the legislation that takes his concerns into consideration, or if he’s willing to walk away from it altogether. In both respects, however, his statement has made it tougher for progressives to trust that he will engage with this legislation seriously moving forward.

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