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Democrats’ social spending dreams stuck in winter purgatory

Build Back Never? The thought has crossed Democrats’ minds.

President Joe Biden’s $1.7 trillion social and climate spending plan is dead as written, rejected by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). The Senate is moving onto a host of other issues that will take up the rest of the winter and possibly some of the spring. And some Democrats concede there’s a small but distinct possibility they could have to shelve the whole endeavor indefinitely.

“Absolutely, there’s the possibility,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who argued that Democrats can still assemble a productive midterm resume without a massive party-line spending bill.

“If we’re able to get the appropriations bills done, if we’re all able to get the Postal Service done, if we’re able to get some stuff done on toxic exposure [in the military], that would be a pretty good record,” he added.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer vowed in December that the chamber will “vote on a revised version of the House-passed Build Back Better Act — and we will keep voting on it until we get something done.” That’s not the strategy at the moment.

Instead, the Senate is now in a long cooling-off period after the twin failures of “Build Back Better” and a push to change the Senate rules to pass elections bills. Democrats are turning to fixing the Postal Service, sexual misconduct reform, spending bills, a Supreme Court vacancy, the Violence Against Women Act and possibly changing the Electoral Count Act and sanctioning Russia.

Dealing with those items could take a couple of months or longer, pushing the Senate closer and closer to the midterms. Most Democrats concede they could not revive a tax and spending bill before April, and the final deadline is Sept. 30, when Democrats’ existing powers to push the defunct bill past a filibuster expire.

Schumer and other Democrats are continuing to quietly discuss possibilities for a new bill and are not giving up on finding a way to bring Manchin on board, a party leadership aide said.

“There’s individual conversations happening, I think there will be more in March happening. It’s not the singular focus,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the No. 4 Democratic leader. “This is definitely part of our work on into the spring.”

And whether Democrats want to pass a party-line spending bill before then depends entirely on whether they are willing to accept Manchin’s terms. In an interview, Manchin did not reject the idea of getting a bill done this year using budget reconciliation bill, the process Democrats would have to use to pass legislation without GOP support.

But the blueprint he offered would take careful time and negotiation — requiring his colleagues to accept a bill that looks nothing like the package that passed the House last year. His vision is more akin to a deficit-reduction package than one that ushers in the massive climate funding and changes to the social safety net that Democrats once envisioned.

Rather than start with spending priorities and then evaluating how to pay for them, Manchin wants to start with tax reform as the goal of any party-line effort. He’s also insisting that social programs go through typical committee consideration, which allows Republicans more input. And he doesn’t just want it fully paid for; he wants it to significantly cut the deficit and put debt on a “downward trajectory.”

“That’s really what reconciliation is for: to get your financial house back in order. And that’s the thing that can be done and should be done,” Manchin said. He said he’s willing to reengage in negotiations if his fellow Democrats “want to be realistic about what the real problems are and how we can fix the problems. The main thing is getting our financial house in order.”

Of course, getting Democrats to agree on tax policy isn’t easy, either. Manchin is more comfortable raising tax rates than Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who is more open to creating some new spending programs than him. Oh yeah, there’s also 48 other Democratic senators and zero margin for error.

Nonetheless, Biden “remains confident that a reconciliation bill, which addresses his key objectives of cutting families’ biggest costs and fighting climate change — funded by having the wealthiest Americans and big corporations pay their fair share — will pass,” said White House spokesperson Andrew Bates.

Most Senate Democrats say at this point, something is better than nothing. They still hope to see a package focused on climate, child care, prescription drug pricing and tax reform — all items Manchin’s professed public interest in. That could imperil the pricey but popular child tax credit, new housing money and home care, for example. And most have accepted paid leave is not going to make it any bill.

“There are many parts to the Build Back Better plan that all 50 Democrats agree on. We just need to put those together and get it passed,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

“It makes sense for it to happen. So for now, put my bet on: we’ll make some sense here and get this done.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has advocated holding votes on the House-passed version of the spending plan to expose Republicans — and possibly some Democrats — as holding back the party’s goals. He said Wednesday it would be “totally absurd” for his party not to bring it for a vote and fight to pass it.

Though Schumer pledged in December to hold a vote, he has given no sign, publicly or privately, that he plans to force votes just to put Manchin and Republicans on the record. Democrats are largely rejecting the idea of bringing up a big spending bill if there’s any question about whether Manchin supports it.

“It’s not coming to the floor until we have the votes,” said one Democratic senator, granted anonymity to discuss party strategy. “We had to do it for voting rights for historic purposes and because we couldn’t leave the filibuster question unanswered. But generally, you don’t want to rack up a bunch of losses in a row.”

The big question facing Democrats is whether Manchin will begin to show more interest in returning to the negotiating table once Democrats get some distance from the divisive fights of December and January. If that ever happens, Manchin advised his party to start with rolling back the tax cuts that former President Donald Trump signed four years ago: “Get you a good piece of tax legislation. It’s the only thing Democrats agree on.”

Manchin has also suggested he’d like to see Democrats prioritize an overhaul of the Electoral Count Act, a complex piece of legislation that could easily take several more weeks to cut a deal on. As to the general question of whether he wants to do another party-line spending and tax reform bill to tack onto last year’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid measure, Manchin won’t say yes or no.

It’s a frustrating bit of purgatory for a party now barreling toward an election without a clear handle on its own legislative accomplishments. And Democrats are already wondering whether they might be in for a slog of a summer, toggling between campaign season and legislating.

“You get into a position where the August recess is the de facto deadline,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). “But it’s also not unheard of to have staff work, remote work through the August recess and come back with something.”

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