Pelosi and Schumer’s big mistake was to think they could bully him into submission.
By Kimberley A. Strassel, published in Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2021
Credit Sen. Joe Manchin for this week solving a paradox. What happens when an irresistible progressive force meets an immovable senator? Physicists take note: The West Virginian is still standing.
To listen to those progressives and the media, President Biden’s agenda hangs in the balance because Mr. Manchin keeps refusing to say what he “wants.” They deigned to express fury and incredulity at Mr. Manchin’s Wednesday night rejection of their $3.5 trillion entitlement blowout. As our president might say: C’mon! Mr. Manchin has been clear for two solid months now. This pileup is solely the fault of a left that put its fingers in its ears, arrogantly relying on threats.
Politico has now made public a July 28 document, signed by Mr. Manchin and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, outlining what “agreement” it would take for Mr. Manchin to begin reconciliation. His topline: $1.5 trillion. His top corporate rate: 25%. No debate on the bill prior to Oct. 1. No reconciliation dollars to flow until after Covid funds were disbursed. Only “needs based” programs, with “means testing.” And conditions on climate provisions. “Senator Manchin does not guarantee that he will vote for the final reconciliation legislation if it exceeds the conditions outlined in this agreement,” reads the paper, in bold. This was two weeks before the Senate voted to begin the reconciliation process.
Mr. Manchin broadcast the same to his colleagues in public. On Aug. 11, he issued a statement declaring the $3.5 trillion “irresponsible,” and in a Sept. 2 op-ed in these pages reiterated he would never support that number. He later noted the bill should be at most “1, 1.5” trillion, and laid out his corporate-tax marker. He said he’d reject any process that set an “artificial” topline and “reverse-engineer[ed]” priorities. He said there was “no way” he’d have any answers by Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s deadline of Sept. 27. He also voiced opposition to expanding Medicare and to certain climate provisions, and he noted his means-testing requirement.
Democrats’ response? Mr. Schumer bulled through a $3.5 trillion resolution, disemboweling the Manchin agreement. (Mr. Manchin voted to begin the process, even as he warned he wouldn’t support that as a final number.) Mrs. Pelosi ordered committee chairmen to mark up by Sept. 27 an artificial $3.5 trillion topline that reverse-engineered priorities and included a Medicare expansion, climate provisions, a 26.5% corporate tax, and giveaways to everyone—with nary a means-test in sight. And Democrats suggest Mr. Manchin isn’t operating in “good faith”?
Mr. Manchin’s vote is essential in a 50-50 Senate; nothing happens without him. The Democratic decision to plow ahead with this resolution—knowing that nearly every policy element and some $2 trillion in additional spending had already been rejected by a senator whose support was indispensable—would at any other time be described as mind-boggling ineptitude. Today, it is progressives’ standard operating procedure.
Democratic leaders chose the option they’ve come to rely on: brute force. Instead of negotiating, party leaders arrogantly bet that a two-month campaign of threats, bullying and pressure would cattle-prod Mr. Manchin into line. Mrs. Pelosi took hostage his bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure package, tying its fate to his willingness to roll over. Liberal activists piled on with protests and smears about his “corruption.” Elected progressives trashed him online. The White House issued summonses. And the whole lot pushed a false narrative that Mr. Manchin was being coy with his demands. There’s nothing coy about a July signed document with the Senate majority leader that reads: “Agreement to Start Budget Resolution.”
There were signs this week that Mr. Manchin was cracking—but not in the manner Democrats planned. He made increasingly clear he had no intention of negotiating a number this week—and certainly not before an infrastructure vote. His responses to a hectoring media grew more terse, and he looked visibly irked when one pundit informed him on Wednesday that Mrs. Pelosi expected “legislative language” on reconciliation by the following day.
A few hours later he released a statement. Democrats want clarity? This was a nuclear truth bomb. The $3.5 trillion plan is “fiscal insanity.” Spending must be geared toward what “we need and can afford—not designed to reengineer the social and economic fabric of this nation or vengefully tax for the sake of wishful spending.” Any new social program must be means-tested. In later remarks Mr. Manchin said that while he remains open to reconciliation, his top is $1.5 trillion, and it’s not happening soon. Live with it.
Is reconciliation still possible? Yes. Might Mr. Manchin be moved to a higher number? Maybe. What is clear is that Bernie Sanders’s wild-eyed $3.5 trillion free-for-all is dead. It’s a black eye to the Biden administration, Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer, and it’s their own fault.
Mr. Manchin has reminded his colleagues all year that he expects the congressional process to remain one of negotiation, collegiality, order and norms. They should have taken him at his word.