Shortly before Christmas, Senate Democrats, who had spent the previous few months trying and failing to pass the Build Back Better Act through reconciliation, decided to pull a switcheroo: Instead of passing Biden’s social spending bill, they would turn their attention to an urgently needed voting rights bill. Fast forward a month, and Senate Democrats have now failed to pass voting rights legislation and a rules change that would have allowed them to approve the measure by a simple majority vote.
Although Democrats insist the work continues on voting rights, and a bipartisan group is attempting to bridge some sort of compromise on an elections reform measure, the focus has once again turned to President Joe Biden’s social spending measure. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly to negotiations on a version of the Build Back Better Act that can pass in the Senate.
Democrats appear to have accepted that the final version of the Build Back Better Act will be smaller than the nearly $2 trillion legislation that passed in the House last year, a massive bill that addressed health care, childcare, education, and climate while overhauling the nation’s tax policy. That measure was torpedoed by opposition from Senator Joe Manchin, who announced shortly before Christmas that he could not support the bill.
So new year, new bill. Biden said in his lengthy press conference on Wednesday that he still believed Congress could pass important portions of the Build Back Better Act. “I’m confident we can get pieces, big chunks of the Build Back Better law signed into law,” Biden said.
Biden’s invocation of “big chunks” was an inherently confusing assertion, however, because Democrats had been trying to cram all of their social priorities into one bill precisely because they could not get the Republican support necessary to pass them in a bunch of little bills. Democrats are using the complicated procedure of reconciliation to avoid the requisite 60-vote threshold to advance most legislation. Reconciliation bills can pass by a simple majority, but Congress can only pass one per fiscal year. (The simple majority requirement is also why all 50 Democratic senators need to be on board with the bill, and therefore why opposition from any one senator is functionally a veto on the legislation.)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi came out against plural chunks on Thursday but in favor of the singular chunk. “What the president calls ‘chunks,’ I hope would be a major bill going forward. It may be more limited, but it is still significant,” Pelosi said in her weekly press conference on Wednesday. “What can we agree upon? And I’m sure that we can agree upon something significant. Call it a chunk if you want.” (White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki later clarified on Thursday that Biden was “talking about getting a big chunk, as much as you can get done” through reconciliation.)
Congressional Democrats appear to be accepting that passing a chunk of the Build Back Better Act is the only option, but they want that chunk to be as big as possible. “We need to get as much as we can across the finish line,” Senator Elizabeth Warren said on Wednesday evening. “It’s hard, because we have the skinniest possible majority, and that means it takes every vote. So we need to do what it takes to get every vote.”
Senator Tim Kaine told The New Republic on Thursday that Democrats need to focus on “the core of what’s most important,” citing provisions on universal pre-kindergarten and affordable childcare. “They’re the noncontroversial ones. Those have not been the ones that have been holding anybody up,” Kaine said, giving a perhaps optimistic timeline of passing something ahead of the president’s speech before Congress in early March. “I hope we’ll find that core, and I’d love to see if we can do something before the State of the Union.”
But if the provisions Kaine mentioned are not controversial, one issue related to childcare is: the child tax credit. Biden acknowledged that the measure, which lifted 3.7 million children out of poverty in December and cut child poverty rates by nearly 30 percent, might fall out of the final bill.
Manchin has repeatedly raised concerns about extending the enhanced child tax credit, which he voted to establish in the American Rescue Plan last March. The West Virginia senator has worried about the cost of the credit and argued that it should be tied to work requirements. (Manchin has not offered clarity about how grandparents raising their grandchildren would receive the credit if there was a work requirement. More than 54 percent of grandparents in West Virginia are raising their grandchildren, according to 2019 census data.)
But Senator Michael Bennet, who has been a staunch supporter of the credit, indicated that he isn’t quite ready to let the issue drop. “I think it’s important to see what we can get done as Democrats here first,” Bennet said. “We’ve got to find a way to extend it.”
Senator Bernie Sanders expressed frustration with the status of negotiations over the Build Back Better Act. “I think our current strategy is a disaster,” Sanders told reporters on Thursday, criticizing opposition from Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema without naming names. “We spent five months trying to appeal to two Democratic senators, and we left Republicans off the hook. I think we need a serious discussion about how we go forward.”
Sanders’s pessimism was not shared by all Democrats. Senator Ron Wyden told reporters that he believed Biden had “created a path for a handful of provisions where we’ve got a lot of strong support.”
“I have offered various ideas to try to bring people together, and we’re not giving up,” Wyden said. “The child tax credit is a tangible benefit for families right now, when they’re dealing with omicron and extra expenses, so we’re gonna fight like hell for it.”
For his part, Manchin said that he believed the biggest priorities were tackling inflation and addressing the coronavirus. He also indicated that a reported $1.8 trillion offer he had made to the White House last month that included most priorities but excluded the expanded child tax credit was off the table. Manchin told reporters that he would be restarting negotiations with the White House on the Build Back Better Act with a “clean sheet of paper.”
“We’ll just be starting from scratch, whenever we start,” he said.