In blow to Biden, Joe Manchin will not commit to backing US$1.75 trillion spending Bill

US Democratic Senator Joe Manchin speaks during a press conference in Washington, DC, on Nov 1, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US President Joe Biden's domestic agenda suffered a significant setback on Monday (Nov 1) when moderate Democratic Senator Joe Manchin announced he would not yet support a US$1.75 trillion (S$2.36 trillion) framework unveiled late last week.

"While I've worked hard to find a path to compromise, it's obvious: compromise is not good enough for a lot of my colleagues in Congress. It's all or nothing, and their position doesn't seem to change unless we agree to everything," Manchin told a news conference.

"Enough is enough. It's time our elected leaders in Washington, all of us, stopped playing games with the needs of the American people in holding a critical infrastructure bill hostage." He portrayed the bill as being filled with "shell games" and "budget gimmicks" that would end up costing far more than its US$1.75 trillion price tag.

The criticism was apparently aimed at progressive Democrats despite some significant concessions from them. The bill is half the US$3.5 trillion price Biden initially proposed. Negotiators also have jettisoned some progressive priorities, including new paid family leave benefits and key climate control provisions.

Manchin demanded immediate action in the US House of Representatives on a US$1 trillion infrastructure bill that the Senate passed in August with the support of 19 Republicans.

But progressives in Biden's Democratic Party have demanded that no vote occur on that measure until the larger bill to expand social programs and attack climate change was first assured of Senate passage.

Manchin's defiance further complicated Democrats' efforts in a month when they are facing a towering legislative to-do list.

In addition to hoping to pass the two major bills, Congress in the next five weeks faces critical deadlines to avoid a government shutdown, a potential embarrassments for Democrats, and avert an unprecedented default on the federal government's debt with its catastrophic economic consequences.

Biden's legacy on the line

Biden visited Capitol Hill on Thursday to plead with Democratic lawmakers to support the two bills.

"I don't think it's hyperbole to say that the House and Senate majorities and my presidency will be determined by what happens in the next week," Biden told a closed-door meeting with House Democrats, said a source familiar with his remarks.

The Senate is divided 50-50, with Democrats holding the majority by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote. That means that any one Democratic senator has effective veto power.

The US$1.75 trillion framework Biden sketched out last week included programs to fight climate change, increase the availability of preschool and boost other elements of the social safety net. Top Democrats, including the party's large progressive wing, had agreed to sharply scale back their hopes from an earlier US$3.5 trillion goal.

At the news conference Manchin criticised House progressives for twice blocking passage of the infrastructure bill that would rebuild roads, update airports and shipping ports and deliver broadband service to under-served rural areas.

Following Biden's private meeting with House Democrats on Thursday there had been growing optimism that the two bills, totaling more than US$2.75 trillion, could advance quickly in the House, maybe as soon as this week.

Progressives spoke in support of the Biden plan, saying they simply wanted to read the full text of the retooled bill still being drafted and to receive a solid promise that Manchin and moderate Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema were fully on board.

Conversations over the weekend were upbeat and Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal on Monday said she hoped for passage of the legislation this week.

"The president came to the caucus and assured us that he would get 51 votes in the Senate for this deal that he has been negotiating with Senator Manchin and Senator Sinema," Jayapal told CNN after Manchin's statement. "We're tired of continuing to wait for one or two people. We trust the president that he will get 51 votes for this" Some Democrats sought to play down the Manchin setback.

"We remain confident that the plan will gain Senator Manchin's support," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.

The bill aims to guarantee pre-kindergarten education, help more seniors receive home healthcare and extend for another year an expanded child tax credit.

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