by Reinout Debergh
Over three months ago, I wrote my first in a series of articles on the Build Back Better Act (BBBA) with hope and optimism, concluding that it is key that this legislation passes through Congress . This still has not happened yet, and the BBBA’s chances of getting passed are up in the air. This article provides a status update on what has happened with the BBBA since that first article, and what its potential future looks like.
Manchin at it again
The ball started rolling on the 19th of December 2021. On that day, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin gave an interview on Fox News stating he would no longer support the bill . With all Democrats’ votes being needed in order to pass the BBBA via the reconciliation procedure, Manchin brought its passage to the brink .
The interview seemed to have taken the White House by surprise. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki issued a statement the same day stating that Manchin’s comments “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” . Senator Bernie Sanders accused Manchin of “siding with corporate America” and not having “the guts to stand up to the powerful special interests” [5, 6]. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer sent a letter, vowing that the Senate would vote on the BBBA and would continue until they get something done . However, no such vote has taken place since . In February, Manchin reported several times that no negotiations were ongoing [5, 9].
So what is Manchin’s problem with the BBBA? First, he is concerned with the speed of the energy transition in the BBBA stating that it will “risk the reliability of our electric grid and increase our dependence on foreign supply chains” . Secondly, he is concerned about the costs given the current economic (covid and inflation) and geopolitical (Ukraine) situation, and believes that the high inflation should be addressed first [5, 6]. Reducing the government deficit has been a long lasting concern for Manchin, stating that Congress must “get a budget bill first” before moving on to the BBBA . Later, he stated: “My biggest concern, and my biggest opposition — it did not go through the process. Republicans should have at least the opportunity to have input.” . Whatever his reasons, his views have caused significant frustration for the White House and other supporters of the BBBA [5, 6, 7].
In January, Biden responded by saying that they could break up the BBBA package into smaller bills and pass as much as possible. He believes he can get support for the climate change provisions . On February the 17th, Biden tweeted that 17 Nobel Prize winners in economics have said the BBBA will ease inflationary pressures, adding “We can get this done” .
During his State of the Union on March 1st, Biden did not use the term “Build Back Better”, but instead said “building a better America”. There was a very strong emphasis on creating jobs including in electric vehicles and manufacturing and reducing living costs including for example via energy efficiency tax credits. He did not offer any update on progress in Congress . Afterwards, Manchin said that “nothing’s changed” .
Reasons for hope
Mid-February, it was reported that a group of senators have begun to engage directly with Manchin on what kind of smaller package he could support. The group includes Ron Wyden (chairman of the Finance Committee), Patty Murray (head of the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee) and Thomas Carper (chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works) .
Several Senate committees have been looking to plan hearings about potential parts of a revised spending package, thereby addressing Manchin’s insistence that any new plan has to follow the regular legislative process .
And on March 2nd, Manchin revived hope of the BBBA by saying he could support a reconciliation package by using the revenue from tax reform and prescription drug reform. Half of the revenue would go to reducing the deficit and addressing inflation. The other half would go to any 10-year program Democrats think is the highest priority which is the environment, Manchin said . However, Manchin is calling for increased domestic fossil fuel production, to reduce energy dependence on Russian gas in the US and the EU. This would go against Biden’s climate agenda and could create friction with the progressives .
Manchin said there haven’t been formal talks with the White House nor is there a proposal, but as some climate campaigners said, it’s better than nothing at all [16, 17].
His approach could raise at least 1.5 trillion USD. In comparison, the BBBA has about 0.5 trillion USD of climate provisions. This means that, assuming the 50/50 split Manchin proposes, there could be additional revenue for health care or child care provisions .
Manchin’s recent comments gave some reason for hope. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said they are open to his approach and are ready to talk with Manchin. But she cautioned that progressives want to see the legislative text first and then have a conversation. . On March 15th, over 80 House Democrats called on Biden to restart negotiations and push for climate funding . The name “Build Back Better” may be dead, but there is still hope for its climate provisions .
However it will look in the end, the clock is ticking. Midterm elections are coming up later this year. Historically, the President’s party loses seats in the House and Republicans are favoured to take control. In the Senate, Republicans only need to win one more seat to have a majority . After the 8th of November, Republicans may very well have control of the US Congress, making the passage of any type of progressive legislation extremely difficult .
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