Joe Manchin
Sen. Joe Manchin, Democrat West Virginia, conducts a news conference on the $1.85 trillion reconciliation bill in the U.S. Capitol on Monday, November 1, 2021. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

For a few days, the Democrats seemed optimistic about passing the long-stalled infrastructure bills. But Joe Manchin has once again thrown negotiations into a tailspin. The West Virginia senator held a press conference on Monday in which he waffled over supposed concerns about budget scoring, and fumed over the party leadership’s insistence on keeping the bipartisan infrastructure bill linked to the broader reconciliation package. According to The Washington Post,

The conservative Manchin rebuffed progressive Democrats, urging them to quit holding “hostage” the smaller public works bill as negotiations continue on the broader package.

“Enough is enough,” Manchin said at a hastily called press conference at the Capitol.

Manchin said he’s open to voting for a final bill reflecting Biden’s big package “that moves our country forward.” But he said he’s “equally open to voting against” the final product as he assesses the sweeping social services and climate change bill.

But Manchin knows very well that the Democratic leadership wants to link the two bills together because no one can trust him or his fellow holdout Senator Kyrsten Sinema to support key planks in the reconciliation package without the leverage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

The infrastructure bill itself does some good things, but it also heavily invests in fossil fuel infrastructure and barely represents much beyond a glorified highway bill. By itself, it does very little to offer solutions that address the pressing crises facing the country—solutions that the rest of the Democratic caucus feels both a moral obligation and political necessity to deliver to their constituents.

Sinema has been equally unpredictable and mercurial. She has famously refused to negotiate her demands in public or even with her fellow senators, but has recently and surprisingly come on board for a variety of key priorities, including paid family medical leave, investments to climate change, and the child tax credit. Notably, two of these provisions are ardently opposed by Joe Manchin, and it’s not clear just how dependable Sinema is or whether she would be willing to fight for the issues in conversations with Manchin.

Meanwhile, of course, Democrats are floundering as the talks lumber onward. Biden’s approval rating has been dropping as voters become pessimistic about the future. The Virginia governor’s race and other races have accordingly been trending against Democrats in the past month.

There is no time left to lose. Democrats need to bring both bills to the floor and dare Manchin and Sinema to vote against them. The progressive House Democrats Mondaire Jones and Pramila Jayapal seem to agree, and for good reason: Manchin’s demands, in particular, continue to shift recklessly; there is no reason to believe that will change in the weeks or months ahead. Manchin even recently stated that he wanted to see work requirements in the family leave bill—absurdly suggesting that leave from employment be subjected to a test for employment itself. These are less policy negotiations than fits of temperament, and they need to come to an end.

It’s possible that the holdout senators will vote no and send everything spiraling. But at least the president and the Democratic leadership will have sent a signal that they are trying and fighting for progress. As with climate change itself, the risk of doing nothing is greater than the risk of doing something. And Democrats have other pressing priorities—most urgently voting rights and other defense-of-democracy measures—that require attention before the midterms.

It’s time to put the reconciliation bill to floor and let the chips fall where they may.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. 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.