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What happened to Build Back Better?

Three possible scenarios for what comes next for Biden’s social agenda.

Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, speaks during the 2022 CERAWeek by S&P Global conference.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is a crucial vote on whatever the next potential iteration of Build Back Better looks like.
Aaron M. Sprecher/Bloomberg via 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.

In recent weeks, President Joe Biden has tried to resurrect the legislation formerly known as Build Back Better, the social spending and climate bill Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) effectively killed in December when he said he wouldn’t support it.

So far, not much has changed. Biden’s efforts include ditching the name and rebranding the policies as measures to curb inflation. Senate Democrats are also holding hearings on issues like prescription drug prices to try to keep talks going. And Democrats, on the whole, have signaled a willingness and political motivation to get something done while they remain in control of Congress.

Few lawmakers, however, seem to have any clue how to actually move it forward. “The answer is I don’t have the foggiest idea,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) told Vox.

Because no Republicans support the bill and because Democrats have a very narrow Senate majority, all 50 members of the caucus need to be on board to pass it via a process known as budget reconciliation. And Democrats are still struggling to piece together a bill that could get this degree of support, given longstanding opposition from holdouts like Manchin.

Earlier this month, Manchin indicated that there were provisions he’d potentially be open to — including reducing prescription drug prices, reforming the tax code, and addressing climate policy — but there’s no explicit agreement yet about what a plan could look like.

“I hope that we will do some of the bill and that we’ll get some key investments in,” said Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA). “Look, folks ought to get in the room and figure out what that is.”

Here are three possible routes Democrats could take as they try to salvage the legislation.

Scenario 1: Democrats could agree on a deficit-reducing deal

Much like the previous bill, any potential agreement hinges on Manchin.

In early March, Manchin effectively put a new offer on the table, saying he’d be willing to consider legislation that focuses on prescription drug prices, tax reforms, and climate investments as long as half the revenue it raises is targeted to paying down the deficit.

“Half of that money should be dedicated to fighting inflation and reducing the deficit,” he told reporters. “The other half you can pick for a 10-year program, whatever you think is the highest priority. Right now, it seems to be the environment.”

If Manchin is serious about his proposal, it’s possible that Democrats could come together on a plan that counters the deficit and funds a smaller slate of new policies.

Thus far, however, Manchin has only outlined this plan in broad strokes — stopping short of offering details regarding changes to the tax code that he’d like to see and declining to say whether he’d back the House bill’s approach to reducing prescription drug prices.

In the House bill, the prescription drug and tax provisions would raise $1.5 trillion over 10 years, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. Were half this revenue dedicated to deficit reduction and combating inflation, there would still be $750 billion left over to cover new spending. This funding would be sufficient to pay for the $555 billion in clean energy tax credits and job investments that were previously part of BBB.

Already, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has said she’s willing to engage in negotiations on this proposal, though she wants specifics before moving forward.

Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR) echoed this support. “I think we can work with it,” he told Vox regarding Manchin’s plan.

The big question, however, is whether Manchin will stick by this position. Previously, Manchin had offered his own proposal to the White House, only to retract it when negotiations got dicey. Last summer, too, he laid out certain provisions he’d consider — including support for opioid addiction treatment and authority over a clean electricity standard — but found other problems once several of those conditions were met.

And even if Manchin is actually on board with this approach, there are questions about whether Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) would be willing to support it since the provisions she’s previously pushed back on were those addressing prescription drug prices and corporate taxes.

Unlike Manchin, however, Sinema backed both the prescription drug policies in the House bill and the White House’s framework on BBB, which included many of the tax provisions that made it into the final bill.

“We need to get together on the parts we agree on and pass it,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) told Vox. “We have a lot that we still need to pass before the midterms.”

Scenario 2: Lawmakers turn to bipartisan bills instead

If Democrats aren’t able to reach a deal on a reconciliation bill, it’s possible they turn to bipartisan alternatives on some of the issues they hoped to address, like lowering prescription drug prices.

Previously, Sens. Wyden and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) had reached an agreement on legislation that would limit the out-of-pocket prices seniors on Medicare would have to pay for drugs. Warnock is also leading a bill that could cap the monthly price of insulin at $35, a proposal that has gotten positive feedback from some Republicans, according to Kaiser Health News. And Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) has expressed an interest in working on the expanded child tax credit and bringing back direct monthly payments for families.

There are major risks, however, to going this route.

For one, the policies that Democrats will be able to pass will likely be much narrower. Wyden and Grassley’s bill did not enable Medicare to negotiate drug prices like the budget bill would, for example. That’s a major reform that could significantly curb drug prices given the body’s negotiating power. Romney’s child tax credit policy would also impose more work requirements for people to receive the benefit, which Democrats’ proposal did not.

Additionally, there’s no guarantee any bipartisan bills would be able to secure the 60 votes they need to advance in the Senate. Even though several of these bills have Republican support, getting 10 GOP members to sign on in the Senate will still be a challenge.

The follow-up to voting rights legislation has underscored these hurdles.

Because Democrats weren’t able to pass a voting rights bill on their own, the focus has shifted toward bipartisan talks to reform the Electoral Count Act. That measure is expected to be far more limited than the bill Democrats proposed, and it has yet to move forward in either the House or the Senate.

Scenario 3: No version of Build Back Better passes

The darkest scenario for Democrats is that no version of Build Back Better, or any of the policies it includes, is able to pass.

This option could be the most likely one given how the party has struggled to agree on a bill since talks began last June. After expressing his opposition to the previous version of the bill, Manchin has yet to support another concrete proposal, meaning any new discussions could have the same outcome as the ones that took place last year.

Democrats also have a packed spring schedule and a limited window to get legislation done before this fall’s elections.

In the coming weeks, the Senate will be focused on the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, so it probably won’t revisit BBB until mid-April at least. Congress also has to work out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the US Innovation and Competition Act, a bipartisan bill aimed at investing in the US supply chain. And lawmakers are still weighing additional action sanctioning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine along with a standalone bill that provides more pandemic relief.

That doesn’t leave much time for Democrats to work out their differences on BBB.

With BBB in flux, Democrats increasingly appear to be pointing to their other achievements like the American Rescue Plan and the bipartisan infrastructure bill as they try to make their case to voters ahead of the midterms.

“We’ve already passed the huge infrastructure bill and notice that it was not with the support of the majority of Republicans … and, of course, the Rescue bill, which did not get a single Republican,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) said.