Manchin wavers on Biden's plan, Democrats vow to push ahead
WASHINGTON — Sen. Joe Manchin wavered Monday on his support for President Joe Biden's sweeping $1.75 trillion domestic policy proposal, saying instead it's "time to vote" on a slimmer $1 trillion infrastructure package that has stalled amid talks.
The West Virginia Democrat's announcement comes as Democrats want a signal from Manchin that he will support Biden's big package. He's one of two key holdout senators whose votes are needed to secure the deal and push it toward passage.
Instead, 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.
Democrats have been working frantically to finish up Biden's signature domestic package after months of negotiations, racing toward a first round of House votes possible later this week.
The White House swiftly responded that it remains confident Manchin will support Biden's plan, and congressional leaders indicated votes were on track as planned.
"Senator Manchin says he is prepared to support a Build Back Better plan that combats inflation, is fiscally responsible, and will create jobs," said press secretary Jen Psaki in a statement. "As a result, we remain confident that the plan will gain Senator Manchin's support."
The stakes are high with Biden overseas at a global climate change summit and his party fighting in two key governors' races this week — in Virginia and New Jersey — that are seen as bellwethers in the political mood of the electorate.
With Republicans staunchly opposed and no votes to spare, Democrats have been trying to unite progressive and centrist lawmakers around Biden's big vision.
Progressives have been refusing to vote on the smaller public works bill, using it as leverage as they try to win commitments from Manchin and Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the other key holdout, for Biden's broader bill.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the leader of the progressive caucus, indicated her group is ready to push ahead and pass both bills this week in the House. She said she trusts that Biden will have the support needed for eventual Senate passage.
"I would urge everybody to keep tempers down," Jayapal said on CNN. "We are preparing to pass through the House both bills in the president's agenda."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer both echoed the White House, suggesting the bills are on track.
Manchin, though, in a direct response to the progressives' tactic, said "holding this bill hostage won't work to get my support" for the broader one. He said he will "not support a bill that is this consequential without thoroughly understanding the impact" it has on the economy and federal debt.
Manchin's priority has long been the smaller public works bill of roads, highways and broadband projects that had already been approved by the Senate but is being stalled by House progressives as the broader negotiations are underway.
"This is not how the United States Congress should operate," Manchin said. "It's time our elected leaders in Washington stop playing games."
Biden's top domestic priorities have been a battlefield between progressive and moderate Democrats for months, and it was unclear if this week's timetable for initial House votes could be met.
The $1.75 trillion package is sweeping in its reach, and would provide large numbers of Americans with assistance to pay for health care, education, raising children and caring for elderly people in their homes. It also would provide some $555 billion in tax breaks encouraging cleaner energy and electrified vehicles, the nation's largest commitment to tackling climate change.
Much of its costs would be covered with higher taxes on people earning over $10 million annually and large corporations, which would now face a 15% minimum tax in efforts to stop big business from claiming so many deductions they end up paying zero in taxes.
Over the weekend, Democrats made significant progress toward adding provisions curbing prescription drug prices to the massive package, two congressional aides said Sunday. They requested anonymity to discuss the ongoing negotiations.
According to a senior Democratic aide, one proposal under discussion would let Medicare negotiate lower prices with pharmaceutical companies for many of their products. Excluded would be drugs for which the Food and Drug Administration has granted initial protection against competition, periods that vary but last several years.
There would be a cap on seniors' out-of-pocket drug costs under Medicare Part D, the program's outpatient prescription drug benefit, said the senior aide, who did not provide a figure. And pharmaceutical makers would have to pay a rebate if their prices rise above certain markers.
Talks were continuing and no final agreement had been reached. But the movement raised hopes that the party's 10-year, $1.75 trillion measure would address the longtime Democratic campaign promise to lower pharmaceutical costs, though more modestly than some wanted.
Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.