Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) are currently preventing Congress from passing two bills that are the foundation of President Biden’s agenda, one on infrastructure and the other his signature “Build Back Better Act.” Passing these measures will allow Biden to claim he successfully implemented his agenda; failure to do so will limit his effectiveness to not being Donald Trump.
Early in the summer, the Democratic Congressional leadership and President Biden agreed to put forward those bills in tandem, with the infrastructure bill being able to pick up enough Republican votes to allow it to overcome a filibuster and pass through the normal process. The BBB Act will not get any Republican support, and to avoid the filibuster, it must pass through the reconciliation process. The progressives agreed to pass the infrastructure bill if the centrists would pass the BBB Act, a compromise that would force each faction to give up something but also get something in return. But now that the progressives voted for the infrastructure bill, a few centrists are balking at passing the BBB Act.
If we had a smoothly functioning democracy the BBB Act would not be so massive. Congress would be able to debate and pass (or not) each element of the bill, which includes such things as extending the child care tax credit, paid family leave, two years of free community college, tax credits for green energy, universal pre-K, expanding Medicare, etc. But because Republican senators (as well as Manchin and Sinema) refuse to eliminate the archaic Senate practice of requiring a supermajority (60 votes) to pass anything except financial bills and approving judges, the Democrats are stuck using the reconciliation process. This process can only be used twice for each budget resolution, and the Parliamentarian has to approve of what is in the reconciliation bills (which can only include budgetary measures, regarding taxes, spending or the deficit), so the Democrats have to put most of their agenda in one massive reconciliation bill.
Because the BBB bill is using the reconciliation process, it must show that it limits contributing to the deficit over 10 years, which is why the bill’s most widely known characteristic is its projected $3.5 trillion cost. Of course, that’s 10 times the annual cost ($350 billion), which is less than half annual cost of the Defense Budget. The BBB Act, as proposed, would not add to the deficit because it is paid for by raising taxes on corporations and the rich (incomes greater than $400,000) and savings generated by negotiating prescription drugs.
Manchin’s main objection seems to be the bill’s cost. As a centrist Democrat, fiscal conservatism is normal. But Manchin had no problem voting for massive Defense Budgets, and did not object to the most recent one to which Congress added $24 billion over the amount requested, so Manchin is selective in applying his fiscal conservatism.
Manchin also represents a state that Trump won by 40 points, so his reticence to vote for the bill might reflect political concerns. But the BBB bill is very popular in West Virginia (Data for Progress poll of likely voters showed they supported it by 43 points), so his opposition is not because he’s reflecting the will of his constituents.
Manchin also objects to the bill’s provisions that support a transition to sustainable sources of energy and away from coal. While coal has been historically important to West Virginia, there are no longer that many jobs mining coal (in 2019, only 14,000 out of about 750,000 total jobs in that state). But Manchin is personally invested in coal (he collects half a million dollars a year from coal stock dividends), so shifting the market away from coal will cost him financially.
Sinema is the other hold-out. She styles herself as a John McCain-type maverick, but McCain was consistent philosophically. The only consistency in Sinema’s behavior is her interest in distancing herself from the Democratic Party to enhance her image as a maverick. She has objected to the provision in the BBB bill that allows the government to negotiate drug prices, which is very popular and the savings from which help pay for the bill. Prior to 2012, she got no money from pharmaceutical companies (she only got $9,000 in 2013-14); in the most recent two-year cycle, she doubled how much she took from them ($121,000 in 2019-20). While it is hard to prove that’s the source of her opposition, there are no other clear explanations.
Sinema also objects to revoking the Trump tax cuts (which she actually opposed when Trump proposed them) and are also an important part of paying for the bill. While she was negotiating with Biden, her fundraising arm (“Sinema for Arizona”) met with business groups who vociferously oppose the bill. Again, that’s not a good look.
The progressives in Congress have demonstrated a willingness to compromise in order to pass legislation. This is not, as the media have often portrayed it, a great divide between the “radical” progressives and the “reasonable” centrists. The BBB Act is the Democratic agenda, and most Democrats want to pass both bills (48 out of 50 Democratic senators). It is the two recalcitrant senators who are not being pragmatic.
Sinema and Manchin need to recognize that even if they don’t like everything in the bills, the country will be better off if they pass than if they fail. Biden ran on this agenda, and it is broadly popular (even in Arizona and West Virginia). The power of representative governments is that they can respond to the desires of the voters. The centrist Democrats need to accommodate that because if the Democrats fail to make the changes they campaigned on when they control Congress and the presidency, supporters will lose faith and stop showing up to vote. Right now, Sinema and Manchin have the power to dictate what passes. But if they abuse that power, they will end up powerless in a Republican-controlled Congress.
Kent James has a doctorate in History and Policy from Carnegie Mellon University and is an adjunct in the History Department at Washington & Jefferson College.