The "real story" on how and why Senator Joe Manchin bailed on Build Back Better (BBB) is the hottest topic in DC this week. The West Virginia senator argues that every Democratic leader, from the White House on down, knew of his reluctance to support this "mammoth piece of legislation" and as such shouldn't be surprised or shocked by his decision. The White House, meanwhile, said in a statement on Sunday that his decision "represent[s] 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."
Not surprisingly, progressive leaders in the House and Senate were livid. After all, they had long warned that "decoupling" the broader social spending bill from the bi-partisan infrastructure bill would ultimately allow moderates like Manchin to sink the progressive legislation. "I hope that we will bring a strong bill to the floor of the Senate as soon as we can," Sen. Bernie Sanders told CNN's Jake Tapper on "State of the Union" Sunday, "and let Mr. Manchin explain to the people of West Virginia why he doesn't have the guts to stand up to the powerful special interests."
In a letter to his colleagues late Sunday night, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer reflected a similar frustration, promising a vote "very early in the new year" on BBB, so that "every member of this body has an opportunity to make known their position on the Senate floor, not just on TV." Furthermore, Schumer promised that the Senate would "consider voting rights legislation" shortly after the Senate reconvenes in January.
But, given Manchin's clear intention to vote against BBB, and the reality of a GOP filibuster jamming up attempts at Democratic voting rights legislation, both of these votes will fail. While it may give some progressives comfort to get Manchin and Senate Republicans' on record', it will not help the party or the president politically. Another few weeks of a media narrative focused on "Democrats in disarray" or "Democrats in-fighting" would only further depress an already discouraged Democratic base. We've seen this 'enthusiasm' gap emerge in focus groups, polling data, and, most recently, the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections. A brand new poll out from Marist/PBSNewsHour/NPR found that approval ratings of Biden among voters who supported him in 2020 had dropped 16 points since April, while those who supported Trump in 2020 have become even more disapproving (up 9 points since April to -94).
Then there's the bind in which a vote on the current BBB legislation puts moderate Senate incumbents. It's one thing for a bill to die before it reaches a vote in the Senate. It's another for a party to force members to vote on something they know will fail because one of your own colleagues has concluded the legislation is going to — in his words — hamper economic recovery and raise energy costs.
House moderate Democrats should be the most frustrated with the latest turn of events. After all, as my colleague David Wasserman wrote, "Democratic leaders spent months corralling their most vulnerable members to stick their necks out for a nearly $2 trillion spending package that will be used against them in GOP ads, only for Manchin to torpedo the legislation."
But, Senate Democrats aren't in the same place. At least, not yet.
GOP ad makers and strategists took to Twitter Sunday and Monday, daring Democrats to undertake the Schumer strategy. "Please baby Jesus, in this the holiest of seasons, make this true," tweeted GOP strategist (and former Sen. McConnell advisor) Josh Holmes. Steven Law, the head of the McConnell-backed Senate Leadership Fund concurred, tweeting, "Republican opposition researchers and ad-makers are standing by…"
It's not hard to figure out what these GOP attack ads in battleground Senate races in states held by Democrats like New Hampshire, Nevada, Arizona and Georgia would look like. They would most likely feature this exchange Manchin had with FOX News Sunday host Bret Baier:
"And you know, my concerns I had, and I still have these concerns and where I'm at right now, the inflation that I was concerned about, it's not transitory, it's real, it's harming every West Virginian. It's making it almost difficult for them to continue, to go to their jobs, the cost of gasoline, the cost of groceries, the cost of utility bills — all of these things are hitting in every aspect of their life."
We should also expect to see this quote from Manchin's written statement opposing the current BBB: "the bill will also risk the reliability of our electric grid and increase our dependence on foreign supply chains."
For the last few weeks, as BBB negotiations stumbled along, and Pres. Biden's job approval ratings continued to slide, Democrats I spoke to were frustrated, but convinced that they would be able to wrap up the legislation soon enough. Then, the thinking went, they'd spend 2022 talking about popular policy. Instead, it looks as if they will spend the early part of 2022 (continuing) to talk process.
While the in-fighting over BBB and voting rights legislation are playing a role in Biden's sagging job approval ratings, it is pessimism about the pandemic and the state of the economy that are driving most of the slide. Unless or until both get better, passing BBB, isn't going to improve Biden's ratings all that much.