The White House began this week with a modest goal for resuscitating its domestic agenda: Get Joe Manchin to the negotiating table.
So far, the seats are empty.
With the clock ticking on their hopes of clinching a major climate and deficit reduction deal before Memorial Day, Democratic leaders are again struggling to make progress — stymied by a lack of clear direction or an understanding of what both Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), their two biggest obstacles, are prepared to support.
“The White House is hamstrung by the Venn diagram of Manchin and Sinema asks,” said a person familiar with Manchin and White House dynamics.
Currently, informal reconciliation talks center on three major areas: climate change, prescription drug reform and deficit reduction. While the White House has yet to acknowledge other social spending elements have been moved off the table, multiple people familiar with the talks said President Joe Biden's ambitions on child and elder care are all but dead.
But even getting a slimmed-down reconciliation package through the evenly divided Senate will depend solely on Biden’s ability to get Manchin and Sinema to yes. And seven months after the White House first tried to crack the Manchinema puzzle last September, it’s clear little has changed.
White House officials have yet to decipher Manchin’s demands. Some staff believe that he will never get to yes. Others confess to being out of ideas, even asking policy activists outside the White House for help in getting the West Virginia Democrat on board. The exasperation was compounded this week as the centrist senator indicated he wants to pursue a bipartisan energy bill as well — a detour that few believe will amount to anything but a distraction. And some Hill aides said it could put a larger reconciliation deal on the backburner.
“Folks just feel burned by Manchin,” a top Democratic operative working on the reviving of the bill said of the growing sentiment within parts of the White House. “That they can’t trust him.”
There has been a hesitancy, people familiar with the process said, for the president to directly engage with the Manchin for fear that he could come out looking feckless. Even if the two were to ramp up formal negotiations, there’s no guarantee the senator would agree to a deal.
If the White House does somehow get Manchin on board, its reward will be a date with Sinema, who may prove even harder to please. While senior officials have courted Manchin on reviving reconciliation talks over the last few weeks, a person close to Sinema told POLITICO that the White House has yet to reach out to her on the issue.
"Given how dysfunctional Congress is right now, someone is taking too many edibles if they think they can deal with a slimmed-down [Build Back Better] in July or August," said Jim Manley, who was a top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "Congress simply can't deal with it. It's now or never and leaning towards never."
Despite the lack of immediate progress, Biden is eager to make the reconciliation effort a centerpiece of his messaging ahead of the midterms, buoyed by the belief his economic vision contrasts well against a GOP agenda proposed by National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Rick Scott (R-Fl.) that includes wide-ranging tax hikes, an administration official said.
The White House has declined to share details about its conversations with lawmakers but disputed that there are any internal frustrations with Manchin.
"Anyone expressing those sentiments is not speaking for the White House," spokesperson Andrew Bates said, adding that discussions with the senator have been "clear and in good faith."
On Tuesday, Manchin said he’s still open to a party-line bill aimed at tamping down inflation and reducing the deficit, though he refused to set any timeline for the talks.
Yet privately, top Democrats view the next several days as critical to determining whether there’s any chance of passing the kind of centerpiece legislation capable of giving a jolt to the party’s midterm prospects. There is growing paranoia that Manchin, in recently engaging in bipartisan talks, is either willfully or unknowingly allowing Republicans to run out the clock on any reconciliation package that Democrats could agree to among themselves.
The White House has resigned itself to negotiating a far smaller bill than Biden envisioned last April, when he first pitched a multitrillion-dollar plan addressing a range of top domestic issues.
Instead, administration officials have sought to win over Manchin by fashioning their efforts specifically around his interests: Energy provisions, prescription drug reform and hundreds of billions of dollars in deficit reduction. That prospective package would be smaller than the $1.7 trillion proposal that fell apart in December over Manchin’s objections, while allowing the White House to secure a handful of climate and health wins.
But in conversations with Manchin and his staff so far, senior administration officials have yet to pin down what the senator specifically wants in the bill. The White House hopes to make more headway this week toward a formal restart of negotiations now that the Senate is back in session, people familiar with the matter said.
Should Manchin agree to sit down, they said, the goal is to hash out a framework the senator can commit to support.
“This is a one-man show,” said a person close to Democratic leadership. “You can’t proceed until you nail that one man down.”
Even if the White House manages to finally get a commitment from Manchin, it’s bound to run straight into another obstacle in Sinema. Indeed, striking a deal with the former without knowing if the latter will agree to tax rate hikes she has fought, poses a gamble. The Arizona senator has insisted for months she won’t support raising the corporate tax rate and hiking capital gains taxes as part of the package — two elements that Manchin has put at the center of his reconciliation wish list.
That sets up a potential standoff that Sinema would feel no need to back down from; already, she’s argued on multiple occasions that her support for a host of other revenue raisers is in line with positions the Biden administration and congressional leaders staked out back in December.
“Any new, narrow proposal — including deficit reduction — already has enough tax reform options to pay for it,” said Hannah Hurley, Sinema’s spokesperson, emphasizing that those options are “supported by the White House.”
In interviews, multiple people familiar with the process suggested that the administration was underestimating the difficulty that Sinema could pose to any potential reconciliation deal — especially since it has paid far less attention to her concerns in lieu of pursuing an agreement with Manchin.
“The revenue stuff is definitely not settled,” said one person close to the administration. “And it’s not clear who’s going to settle it.”
That all amounts to a thorny route that Biden and his top officials will need to navigate over the course of mere weeks.
Democrats broadly acknowledge a framework that can win 50 Senate votes must be finalized before the chamber breaks for Memorial Day. That would give the party until July Fourth to assemble the legislation and decide whether it can pass before the midterm stretch run kicks off.
In anticipation of that sprint, Senate staffers have prepped legislative language and cost estimates for various provisions so they can be swapped into an overall package as quickly as possible. Advocacy groups, in meantime, are readying final campaigns to get their smaller pet issues tucked in at the last minute.
But first, the White House must succeed at finally getting Manchin and Sinema to yes.
“The room that's going to decide what’s in a final package, should it occur, is going to be a very small room,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at the centrist Democratic think tank, Third Way.
Sam Stein contributed to this report.