Joe Manchin wrecked Biden's economic agenda last year. He ended up saving a lot of it in the last month.
- Joe Manchin is among the Democrats most responsible for blocking much of Biden's economic agenda.
- But he saved a lot of it in the end, helping pass a huge climate bill that's headed to Biden's desk.
"Another week, another Manchin."
That quip from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York in early March summed up the depth of Democratic frustration with perhaps its most stubborn member: Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. As winter turned to spring, Democrats were rudderless. Their economic agenda was shattered and they hadn't truly begun sorting through the wreckage of their Build Back Better plan. Russian troops pouring into Ukraine sent gas prices soaring, compounding their political problems.
It was a period when snatching a victory from the jaws of defeat seemed unlikely for Democrats and President Joe Biden. Manchin often doused cold water on even a skinnier version of their ambitions. Few trusted him to cut an agreement.
Though this time, Manchin didn't pull the football away at the last minute. He changed into a red-state Democrat who signed onto the biggest climate bill ever assembled in Congress — and helped push it over the finish line with just three months until the midterms.
"Every now and then, Joe Manchin reminds us he's a Democrat," Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota said at the US Capitol last week. "For Joe, being a Democrat is as natural as being an Italian."
Manchin drafted the package with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer behind closed doors, eschewing the public back-and-forth that characterized last fall's turbulent Build Back Better talks. The Democratic conclave shut out even Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, another pivotal vote. But it eventually yielded a breakthrough that caught most in Congress by surprise, particularly on the scale of the deal's climate spending.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, director of the climate and energy program at the center-left Third Way think tank, said the bill was the "single most impactful step that the US has taken on climate change."
"This really provides the assistance through grants, loans, and tax credits to drive the private sector to accomplish what we need to accomplish," he told Insider. The bill designates $370 billion for clean energy tax credits meant to cut the cost of purchasing electric vehicles, and provides funding for installing solar panels and heat pumps.
"There were some parameters about how he wanted to do it," Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think-tank that has worked with Manchin, told Insider. "But he's as committed to federal investment in the clean energy transition as Schumer or [Sen. Brian] Schatz."
"As the package moved from the social spending agenda freighted with a lot of fiscal gimmickry to a clean energy infrastructure package, Senator Manchin became more supportive because the package reflected his priorities," Grumet said.
Only time will tell if Democrats reap political benefits
Manchin always made clear he was a Democrat cut from a different cloth. He hailed from a state that Trump carried in the 2020 election by nearly 40 percentage points, the former president's second-highest margin of victory in the US.
He was a thrifter instead of a big spender, sounding the alarm on inflation long before Democrats did. The fiscally austere moderate halted his party's efforts to expand the safety net for families, balking at the idea of "an entitlement-based society" taking root. Plans to restore the Biden monthly child tax credit, establish universal pre-K and affordable childcare were all axed to accommodate the slim boundaries of his vote.
"Our party has spent the past year or so asking those moderate Democrats who never made these big, bold promises of progressive change and never campaigned on Build Back Better to vote for these policies," John LaBombard, an ex-aide to Sinema, recently told Insider.
Manchin seemed satisfied at times to play spoiler on Biden's agenda. He helped block action on voting rights and scuttled progressive nominees for the Federal Reserve. His mercurial approach angered many Democrats, but it led to a surge in his approval rating in West Virginia to fortify his standing.
By late spring, Democrats had abandoned their pursuit of social spending on a level similar to the New Deal or the Great Society. But that hasn't kept them from claiming a major victory on legislation that bears little resemblance to the sweeping $3.5 trillion spending blueprint Democrats once sought.
Progressives believe they won big, holding the line on Biden's agenda against moderates intent on paring it down. They insist they'll come back for the rest if Democrats manage to keep control of Congress.
"From the beginning, progressives have fought tooth and nail to advance the full scope of the President's economic agenda," Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington said at a news conference on Friday. "Now, we just need a couple more Democratic senators to make the rest of that agenda a reality."
It's a long shot. Biden's approval ratings are sagging and voters rank inflation near the top of their concerns in the midterms. Democrats are expected to lose the House, but they may still hang onto the Senate.
Only time will tell if Democrats reap political benefits from the Inflation Reduction Act, which drew no GOP support. Some of the prized initiatives — like a $2,000 cap on out-of-pocket spending on drugs for seniors — kick in several years after the midterms. In addition, automakers are warning that few, if any, electric vehicles will qualify for consumer tax credits once strict sourcing requirements take effect starting next year.
Democrats experienced over a year's worth of handwringing due to Manchin. But without him in a split Senate, their economic agenda never stood a chance. "The only reason there's someone named Majority Leader Schumer is because Senator Manchin somehow managed to get elected in West Virginia," Grumet said.
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