If Manchin Is Holding Infrastructure Hostage, Biden Should Say So

The president is under no moral or practical obligation to give the West Virginia senator and his allies political cover.

If something feels like it doesn’t make sense at face value, there’s a good chance it doesn’t. If your gut tells you that something is off, then it probably is. Either someone isn’t being honest or there’s a crucial piece of missing information. This is a good life lesson for avoiding scams and staying out of danger. It’s also an excellent approach to analyzing politics–especially the current bizarre negotiations over the infrastructure package.

A sense of strange and suspicious unease currently hangs over the Biden administration’s approach to the infrastructure bill. President Biden began his term signaling a no-malarkey approach to legislation: he would welcome bipartisanship if it offered itself, but he would not be constrained by it. He and his advisors declared that they would avoid the mistakes of Obama’s first term in giving Republicans the opportunity to sabotage popular bills in the guise of bipartisan negotiations. They would go big and prioritize policy over process.

And for a time it seemed they meant it. A raft of executive orders undoing some of Trump’s worst acts and pursuing a variety of progressive priorities was followed by rapid action on a historic $1.9 trillion COVID and general economic relief package. The Senate vote on the COVID relief bill was a party-line 50-49 tally passed via reconciliation and in the teeth of total Republican obstruction–despite the fact that many GOP Congressmembers tried to sneakily take credit for the benefits they voted against in their districts afterward. And it seemed as if Democrats might use the same strategy for another major effort at infrastructure funding shortly thereafter.

But then something strange happened. Instead of going straight to reconciliation again, the Biden administration began to insist that it desperately wanted bipartisan support for the infrastructure bill–and hopefully via a filibuster-proof regular order. It’s not clear why: the infrastructure bill is incredibly popular. Unlike other major priorities such as voting rights, it can pass via reconciliation. If Republicans fail to support it, it will likely cost them far more in the upcoming midterm elections than whatever hits Democrats take from passing it along party lines. The longer bills like this stall in Congress and the weaker they become, the less popular they become. And beyond the politics of it, the policy is desperately needed: every day that passes without getting these projects started is another day risking bridge collapses, spills, hacked water supplies and overburdened electric lines.

And yet, the talks continue to drag on even past the administration’s own Memorial Day deadline. The White House continues to maintain that it is essential for the credibility of the bill to maintain Republican support, much to the frustration and fury of most Democrats and progressive groups. But Senator Capito, the GOP’s lead negotiator, continues to make laughable counteroffers, whittling the infrastructure bill to a tiny fraction of what is required.

Why bother at all, though? What is it about the infrastructure bill that makes GOP support for it much more important than the COVID relief package? Yes, the revenue side could be potentially tricky politics for Democrats. But getting a few GOP votes for tax increases is both realistically impossible and won’t really provide significant cover for Democrats afraid of GOP attacks in 2022 on the issue. Meanwhile, raising taxes on corporations to pay for infrastructure remains very popular with almost every voter who would ever be inclined to vote for a Democrat–and even with many Republicans who would never do so.

All of this feels somewhat like when a friend starts acting strangely all of a sudden. It feels weird and “off” somehow. Some like Robert Kuttner at the American Prospect contend that these bipartisan negotiations are simply a way of demonstrating Republican intransigence in a broader strategy to convince certain Democratic Senators to overturn the filibuster or pass the bill via reconciliation. It doesn’t make much sense to let infrastructure be the tool for showing Manchin, Sinema or any other recalcitrant or forgetful Senators the need for ending the filibuster, when Majority Leader Schumer is already planning a series of reconciliation-proof bills for that purpose. But if Manchin and likeminded Democrats are refusing to support the infrastructure bill unless it has Republican support, that would suddenly make sense.

And indeed, Senator Manchin has been making it clear that he does not support reconciliation for infrastructure and is insisting on a broadly bipartisan bill. Below is his conversation with NBC reporter Garrett Haake on Thursday:

“Are you ready to go it alone with just Democrats?” Haake asked Manchin.

“No. I don’t think we should. I really don’t,” Manchin responded. “Right now, basically, we need to be bipartisan.”

Manchin also said “it’s a disaster waiting to happen” if Democrats attempt to pass major legislation, such as on infrastructure or voting procedures, without Republican support.

Why Manchin thinks passing an infrastructure bill without GOP support would be a “disaster waiting to happen” is anyone’s guess.

But if Biden is really negotiating with Manchin while pretending to negotiate with Republicans, then things suddenly start to make much more sense. In this understanding, it’s not Biden who has suddenly forgotten the lessons of the early Obama era, but Manchin and friends who already seem to have forgotten the unalloyed success of the COVID relief bill and the irresponsible intransigence of his Republican colleagues.

But if that’s the case, then the president owes it to the American people to be honest about that. It serves Republican interests to see Biden and most of his party flail about in trying to win their support, and to run out the clock on his priorities. It also serves Republican interests to see progressives frustrated and demoralized, believing that Biden is to blame for Manchin’s obtuseness.

It would be simple for the president to say that he wants the infrastructure bill to pass immediately via reconciliation, but that there are a few Democratic Senators who seem to think that Republican votes are essential for some reason–and that anyone who is upset about the delay should take it up with them. He could continue to openhandedly maintain that any Republican who would like to be serious about prioritizing the country’s needs would be welcome to make tweaks to the bill, but not to utterly hobble it.

But the president is under no moral or practical obligation to give Manchin and his allies political cover, making the entire leadership look foolish in the bargain. If they want to waste the country’s precious time, let them take responsibility for that. If they can get Republican votes for a good bill, then they can be bipartisan heroes. If they can’t, then they need to figure out how to step up and do the nation’s business, anyway. That would make sense– and it would cure the disorientation of watching the president apparently unlearn lessons he seemed to have learned just a few months prior.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.