Joe Manchin
Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat from West Virginia, pays his respects to former Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, as he lies in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021 in Washington. (Shawn Thew/Pool via AP)

For one of the first fights between Al and Peg Bundy on the farcical sitcom Married … With Children, Peg belts out a song Al hates, the sappy “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro. Al retaliates by clipping his toenails in front of her. Peg raises the stakes by shifting to Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem, “I Am Woman,” which is too much for Al, and he surrenders. After a moment of tranquility, Peg starts singing the chirpy 1963 hit “Dominique” from Jeannine “the Singing Nun” Deckers. A pained Al pleads, “Peg, you won. There’s no need to spike the ball.”

Senator Joe Manchin is the Senate’s Peg Bundy.

Over the objections of congressional progressives, his bipartisan physical infrastructure bill was delinked from the more sweeping and partisan Build Back Better bill. While Build Back Better was initially conceived as a $3.5 trillion program, the House-passed version costs $1.7 or $2.2 trillion, depending on how you count. As significant parts of that version will likely be stripped out by either Manchin or the Senate parliamentarian before the chamber votes, the final price tag is expected to be lower.

Yet on Monday, Manchin once again tapped the brakes on the 10-year Build Back Better bill, telling reporters, “There’s an awful lot there and a lot of changes to be done and you’re throwing it at a time when it’s very vulnerable in our economy.” Discussing the push by some Democrats to vote on the bill by Christmas, the 74-year-old elaborated: “I don’t know if setting a certain time is going to fix the inflation … And I’m concerned about, you know, the geopolitical unrest we have around the world right now.” On Tuesday, at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council Summit, Manchin was critical of how some of the new programs sunset before reaching the end of the bill’s 10-year window, distorting its price tag: “Do they not intend for those programs to last the full 10 years? Well, if you intend for that to happen, what’s the real cost? Because we’re either going to debt-finance it, if we’re not going to pay for it, or come back and change the tax code again.”

Joe, you won. If you’re going to spike the ball, at least do it in the end zone. Make clear what you want in, what you want out, and what you want to change. Then declare victory and go home for Christmas as the hero.

(With the need for a fresh Congressional Budget Office score and Senate parliamentarian rulings, a vote by Christmas might not be possible. But a public blessing by Manchin before the holiday would allow Democrats to end the year on a strong note, generate favorable year-in-review coverage, rewrite gloomy media narratives, and maybe even rejuvenate the party’s poll numbers.)

The negotiating tactics of Manchin, and his moderate partner in senatorial crime, Kyrsten Sinema, have frustrated progressives and other Democrats all year. Manchin would answer questions with a confusing word salad, and Sinema wouldn’t even respond most of the time. But there was a method to their madness. Their inscrutability made other Democrats scramble to figure out what it would take to appease them. The moderate duo could sit back and pocket one concession after another. The attempt by progressives to hold their bipartisan handiwork hostage and gain leverage was rendered impotent.

Progressives caved on the infrastructure bill once President Joe Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi made clear they didn’t want to wait anymore, meaning progressives were only willing to be an obstructionist bloc if they weren’t flagrantly opposing party leadership. Now, progressives are not even trying to draw red lines about what has to be in the final Build Back Better bill. They’ve positioned themselves as flexible pragmatists willing to compromise in service of Biden’s agenda. Progressives will almost certainly accept whatever Manchin says must be taken out of the bill. (Sinema reportedly has already communicated in private her intention to support the Build Back Better bill.) Any attempts at last-minute resistance will likely melt on contact with heat from Biden, Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

In other words, Manchin doesn’t need to wait until after the holidays to gain additional leverage. He can get his way now.

Granted, one must always entertain the possibility that politicians say what they believe. Maybe Manchin isn’t playing games. Perhaps the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman does just want to wait and see if inflation cools before proceeding. But Manchin should know better than to rest the fate of a long-term bill on wisps of monthly economic data.

Inflation is a volatile indicator in normal times, especially regarding consumer goods like food and fuel. You can’t take one month of inflation data and use it to predict what will happen in subsequent months. Furthermore, we’re not in normal times. We haven’t beaten the pandemic. A new coronavirus variant could always stall the world economy. Biden and the Federal Reserve should watch inflation and, if necessary, take action to contain it. (On Tuesday, Manchin scolded Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell for hesitating to raise interest rates.) But any such action doesn’t require junking Build Back Better.

Biden might be overselling how much Build Back Better will reduce inflation, but Manchin is overhyping how the bill might increase it. Yes, the CBO estimated that the bill would grow the deficit by $155 billion in 2022, largely because it extends the child tax credit but delays ratcheting up taxes on the wealthy and businesses. But $155 billion just isn’t very much in a $22 trillion economy. (As I noted here previously, Moody’s Analytics projected that inflation would be slightly higher in 2022 with Build Back Better than without, but would be much lower than today in either scenario.) Besides, if Manchin is so terrified about the bill’s short-term impact on inflation, he can insist on front-loading more of the bill’s increased revenue.

In fact, he can insist on anything. Yet he is taking an oddly leisurely approach. “We haven’t seen the final text,” Manchin said on Tuesday. “For me to speak on it, to say, ‘Yes, I can be for this,’ or ‘No, I’m not going to be for that,’ or ‘You need to change this or that’—until I see the legislation, it’s hard to say that.” But he doesn’t have to wait for Democratic leaders to present him with text, or for the Senate parliamentarian to rule on what qualifies for reconciliation, or for more noisy inflation data, before asserting his influence. Right now, he can take out or adjust what he doesn’t like, then tell Democrats to take it or leave it. Believe me, they’ll take it.

Since there is no rational political or policy reason for Manchin to delay, cynics will conclude that his endgame is to kill the bill. If that’s true, then Manchin should kill it now. Why wait? Unlike most Democrats, he can’t be worried that his heavily pro-Trump home state would be mad at him for stabbing Biden in the back. If he has any awareness of how sinking Biden’s agenda would undermine vulnerable Democrats who have to face voters in 2022, he should clarify his intentions so the rest of his party can regroup.

I am not so cynical. Manchin is a tough negotiator, but history strongly suggests that he likes his negotiations to succeed. His record as governor and more than a decade in the Senate says he’s a doer, not a destructor. Last week, he struck a pragmatic note on CNN: “You never get it the way you want it. You have to get the best position you can [so] that you can accept it. We just got to work it. We’re working.”

Manchin must also be aware that sinking the Build Back Better bill, after progressives swallowed their fear of delinking it from the bipartisan infrastructure bill, would obliterate the rekindled trust between progressives and moderates. Without party unity, any hope of Democrats beating the odds in the 2022 midterms, or at least containing the damage, will dissolve. Those who would suffer the most are moderate Democrats in swing districts, the allies Manchin would like to keep in Congress.

Manchin has played his cards exceptionally well. Despite efforts to squeeze and shame him, he remains the 50th and final vote. In the battle with progressives about who has the leverage over Biden’s agenda, he has emerged victorious. But the victory is only worth having if Biden can deliver on his agenda.

Joe, you won. Now let the other Joe have a win, too.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.