It’s hard to know how to respond to Senator Joe Manchin’s wildly erratic and self-centered maneuverings around President Biden’s ill-starred “Build Back Better” plan. We know you’re not supposed to negotiate with terrorists – of course, I’m not calling him a terrorist – but it’s fairly routine to negotiate with hostage-takers. And Manchin has taken most of Biden’s signature agenda hostage. First he cut it in half, and then he reneged on what colleagues, and even Biden, considered firm agreements, walking away from the whole thing just before Christmas, claiming it was time to deal with the federal deficit instead.
Still, Biden and Senate Democrats seemed keen on getting at least some of the hostages back. It was Manchin who was refusing to negotiate, or even talk about next steps. But then, as if he was wilting from the sudden loss of media sunlight, Manchin came back. Sort of. After Biden’s State of the Union speech last week, the West Virginia senator was saying to be “floating a package” that he’s touting as an inflation-buster: to cut the deficit, reduce prescription drug prices, fund certain climate change measures and reform the tax code. If it’s missing some of the most important BBB programs – particularly the child tax credit, which briefly cut child poverty by 40 percent – the best that can be said for it is that none of its core tenets are objectionable. That we know of yet, anyway.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer seemed to endorse Manchin’s approach in a Monday letter to Senate colleagues pushing renewed action on legislation to deal with “rising costs” via the Democrat-only budget reconciliation process: “to lower the rising cost of energy, prescription drugs and health care, and the costs of raising a family,” he wrote.
Exactly what Manchin is up to is mysterious, though. “It looks like there’s been some movements with Sen. Manchin — that’s good. I can tell you, our caucus is ready to move a reconciliation bill,” Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland told NBC News. Colorado Senator Mike Bennet put it this way: “Manchin said start with a blank sheet of paper. Well, he’s put some pencil marks on a blank sheet of paper.” Manchin has floated some of his ideas in recent media interviews. But he insisted, again, on Sunday’s Meet The Press that there were “no formal talks going on.” Just pencil marks. Got it.