Manchin says he's 'engaged' with Biden on economic plan

Key senator still uncommitted after phone meeting with President on spending Bill

VIRGINIA • Senator Joe Manchin emerged from a phone meeting with United States President Joe Biden still uncommitted to voting for the President's economic agenda by year's end.

"We're just talking about different iterations, that's all," Mr Manchin said about the call. "We're engaged," he added.

White House spokesman Andrew Bates called the conversation "constructive". Mr Biden and Mr Manchin, Mr Bates said, "agreed to follow up with one another in the coming days".

Mr Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said earlier on Monday that he has growing concerns about rising US debt and soaring consumer prices, after a Friday economic report showed inflation hit the highest annual rate in four decades.

His support for Mr Biden's roughly US$2 trillion (S$2.74 trillion) tax and spending plan is crucial in the Senate, split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats.

Mr Manchin added that Congress also must account for foreign policy challenges that might compete for resources - including Russia's troop build-up on the border with Ukraine and China's threats to Taiwan.

"Inflation is real," he told reporters. "It's not transitory. It's alarming it's going up, not down. And I think we should be more concerned about geopolitical fallout."

Mr Biden, speaking to reporters separately on Monday, declined to specify his message to Mr Manchin before their call.

He said his objective when speaking with lawmakers generally is to "convince them that what I'm proposing makes sense and it's not inconsistent with what they believe".

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer insists the Senate will pass the sweeping tax-and-spending package before Christmas, but there is still much work to do and time is running short.

Mr Manchin also said that he still wants a package of about US$1.7 trillion, adding that "whatever Congress is considering doing we should do it within the limits of what we can afford".

He said he is increasingly concerned about the way Democrats are making some programmes in the so-called Build Back Better legislation temporary - which he says hides their true costs over 10 years.

A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis requested by Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, showed that Mr Biden's plan would - if new and expanded programmes are made permanent without new revenue - cost far more than Democrats say.

The Bill would add US$3 trillion in deficits over 10 years, the CBO said under the assumptions Mr Graham asked them to use.

That compares with US$200 billion in deficits added under the CBO score of the bill as written.

The White House and congressional Democratic leaders disputed the premise of the CBO report, arguing that Mr Biden has long said he would only support expanding programmes if doing so was fully paid for.

In addition, key pieces of the bill that are still under negotiation include a House-passed provision for four weeks of paid family and medical leave that Mr Manchin opposes.

Also unresolved is an expansion of the federal deduction for state and local taxes, or Salt, which currently has a US$10,000 cap. The House-passed version of Mr Biden's so-called Build Back Better Bill lifted the cap on the write-off to US$80,000.

Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, and Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, say the House approach is too generous.

They are instead looking at limiting the tax break to those under a certain income threshold, but disagree on what that should be.

All Republicans oppose the package, requiring all 50 senators who caucus with Democrats to support it, with Vice-President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote.

The economic programme would increase taxes on the wealthy and corporations while providing universal pre-kindergarten schooling, childcare subsidies, climate-change protections, expanded Obamacare health insurance subsidies and the ability of Medicare to negotiate prices on some medicines.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 15, 2021, with the headline Manchin says he's 'engaged' with Biden on economic plan. Subscribe