WASHINGTON ― Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) secret agreement with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) took many of his Democratic colleagues by surprise on Thursday as they came face-to-face with the reality that their grand plans for an ambitious safety net and climate spending package may need to be scaled back.
Manchin revealed for the first time on Thursday that he won’t accept a package totaling more than $1.5 trillion, which is far lower than the $3.5 trillion figure Democrats have been seeking. The moderate Democrat outlined his spending cap and other conditions in a private document with Schumer in July, weeks before Democrats voted to begin drafting a bill that totaled $3.5 trillion.
“It’s pretty sad if you ask me,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) told reporters when asked about Manchin’s position on Thursday.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said a bill totaling $1.5 trillion wouldn’t be nearly enough investment to address the urgent threat of climate change. He cited an opinion article that former West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, Manchin’s predecessor, wrote in 2009 arguing on behalf of robust action to address climate change. “He was onto something,” Heinrich tweeted.
But other senators struck a more pragmatic tone, welcoming the fact that Manchin revealed exactly where he stands on their legislative priority. Progressive lawmakers in recent days have complained that Manchin wasn’t being forthcoming about what he wanted to see in the bill as he negotiated with President Joe Biden at the White House.
“My impression is he may have released that, surprising many of us, in order to make clear he’s had a list that showed some basic positions and principles,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told HuffPost about the July document. “That’s positive in that it moves us from we don’t have much of a sense at all to here’s a clear list.”
“Now that we know what his priority is, we will work on him to try to push him to do more… we’re closer to a deal,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) added.
A bill totaling $1.5 trillion would force Democrats to narrow many of their priorities or strip them out. The $3.5 trillion proposal, as it stands, includes funding for free community college and prekindergarten; monthly payments to most households with children, which started this summer; expanded health care coverage for seniors and the poor; and new subsidies for green energy. If Manchin holds firm on $1.5 trillion, Democrats would be forced to ditch many of those programs.
Manchin said in a Thursday briefing with reporters that he opposed adding too many new government programs because it would create an “entitlement mentality” among the American people. He said he preferred imposing “means testing” and “work requirements” for existing programs.
Democrats control only 50 seats in the Senate, and they need all 50 senators on board in order to pass a bill under the reconciliation process, which allows them to avoid a Republican filibuster. Manchin and other moderate senators who share his views, therefore, have outsized leverage in the talks.
The typed “agreement” Manchin and Schumer both signed in July that Politico revealed outlining Manchin’s demands said he does not guarantee voting for the reconciliation bill if it exceeds $1.5 trillion, leaving open the possibility he could support a higher number. It also includes a written note from Schumer stating, “I will try to dissuade Joe on many” of the demands.
The news of the document landed like a bombshell on Capitol Hill, where reporters have tried for months to get Manchin to spell out his demands with little success. Asked Thursday why he wasn’t more transparent about his position on reconciliation, including on the overall spending total he is willing to support, Manchin said he “was trying to honor my agreement” with Schumer. He didn’t elaborate.
A spokesperson for Schumer sought to downplay the significance of the document their boss signed, saying the senator “never agreed to any of the conditions Sen. Manchin laid out; he merely acknowledged where Sen. Manchin was on the subject at the time.”
Still, Schumer kept many of his members in the dark about the existence of the document, which stayed secret for over two months as lawmakers pressed forward with expectations of a larger bill that included many progressive priorities. Schumer even kept members of his leadership team out of the loop.
“I did not,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chair of the party’s policy committee, told HuffPost when asked if she was previously aware of the document.
“It’s always helpful when you’re negotiating to have information about the other people you’re talking about,” added Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the vice chair of the conference. She said she was “not pleasantly” surprised by the news.
That Schumer signed the document is also notable — members of both parties have touted promises from leadership on pet issues before; rarely have they come on a signed piece of paper.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who worked closely with Manchin this summer on an infrastructure overhaul, said it was clear that he had given Democrats a heads up from the beginning “and the leader knew exactly what he wanted, and somehow that was ignored.”
Democrats are hoping they can ultimately get Manchin to agree to a bill totaling more than $1.5 trillion. But Manchin seemed firm on that number Thursday, suggesting that his party can take a second crack at passing more of Biden’s legislative agenda in follow-up legislation next year.
“I’m willing to sit down and work through 1.5 and get at my priorities, and [the rest of the party] can come back with it later and they can run on the rest of it later. … not everything at one time,” Manchin said.
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