As Biden agenda hinges on Manchin, House progressives look to 'deescalate' tension
Soon after Missouri Rep. Cori Bush accused Sen. Joe Manchin of espousing an "anti-Black, anti-child, anti-woman and anti-immigrant" position, another House progressive was on national TV with a sharply different message.
Manchin, in fact, is not a racist, California Rep. Ro Khanna asserted.
The next day, Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Blue Dog Democrat, invited Khanna along with a handful of other House members to make the short trek across the Capitol and meet with Manchin in the Senate cloakroom. Manchin was aware of Khanna's remarks and thanked him, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter.
The episode illustrated the efforts by a group of House and Senate progressives to work behind the scenes to build goodwill with the Senate's most unpredictable moderate, who has the power to sink President Joe Biden's expansive agenda -- and many progressive priorities -- simply by pointing his thumb down. Manchin has made clear he won't be jammed, even holding a press conference last week balking at the demands made by progressives that he publicly endorse Biden's $1.75 trillion framework.
In private, Manchin has had cordial conversations with the House's progressive caucus chair, Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, but he has also informed her that she doesn't have leverage over him, according to sources familiar with the matter. And he's shown little willingness to bend as he's been grilled by Senate progressives, such as New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, in tense discussions over including paid family leave in the larger plan, which he continues to oppose, according to people who have spoken with him.
After months of intense scrutiny on his positions, Manchin now stands poised to have the final word on Biden's agenda, assuming House Democratic leaders can muscle through their version of the Build Back Better plan, which stands at roughly $1.9 trillion, as soon as next week.
Then the focus will shift squarely to what Manchin will accept, an open question as he has for months called on his party to hit the brakes. He raised concerns that a multi-trillion bill could add to the country's inflation woes, pushed back on provisions to reduce methane emissions, opposed a Medicare expansion, demanded changes to the tax provisions in the House proposal and resisted measures aimed at helping undocumented immigrants.
And if he cuts a deal, House progressives almost certainly will be forced to swallow it.
So rather than publicly berating him and demanding he agree to their priorities, many Democrats say the way to win him over is to give him space, avoid the personal attacks, engage in an open dialogue with him and let him ultimately come to a conclusion that passing the bill is crucial not just for the President's political future but his deep-red state as well.
"I have always had a cordial relationship with Sen. Manchin and just wanted to keep the dialogue open so he doesn't feel in any way disrespected," Khanna told CNN. "So he knows there is an exchange of ideas. And I think that will make it marginally easier for the White House to build consensus."
Added Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, a more centrist Democrat who has been in talks with Manchin over the environmental proposals: "One of the early lessons I've learned in politics, all politics is local. And there's so much at stake here for West Virginia."
In private, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has counseled her House colleagues not to insult Manchin, Democrats say. And she has spoken positively about her relationship with the West Virginia Democrat, who gave her a statue of a coal miner this year in a gesture toward their efforts to help those workers with their pension problems, according to a person who heard her remarks.
While Democrats are uncertain where Manchin will come down, they are far more reassured that Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema -- the other leading moderate -- will ultimately back the sweeping expansion of the social safety net. Many of Sinema's concerns -- namely opposing raising corporate and individual tax rates and slicing down the initial $3.5 trillion price tag -- have already been addressed.
A closed-door meeting of House and Senate Democrats late last month in the Senate, between Jayapal, Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse along with Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, went a long way toward reassuring progressives that Sinema will ultimately vote for the package, according to multiple Democrats.
Democrats say that the distrust between the two wings -- which stalled action on the President's agenda for months -- is slowly starting to ease. Indeed, it was a late-night deal-making session between a handful of House moderates and progressives that paved the way for passage of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that Biden plans to sign into law Monday.
"The last few weeks have been eventful," said Neguse, a progressive Democrat who also attended the meeting with Manchin along with Khanna, Cuellar and two centrist House Democrats, and has spoken repeatedly with Sinema as well.
"It's important to de-escalate the situation," another Democrat said, referring to progressives' war of words with Manchin.
A late-night deal and Biden's warning
To get Manchin ultimately on board, Democrats are mostly leaving it up to Biden, who has been in direct conversations with the senator for months. And they say the President should use the same kind of persuasiveness he employed in getting liberals to support final passage of the infrastructure bill, which they had held up for more than a month as they demanded the larger proposal be approved at the same time.
As he addressed the Congressional Progressive Caucus on speakerphone last Friday night and urged the House liberals to separate the two bills and support the infrastructure package, Biden urged the caucus to trust his ability to deliver the needed 50 Democratic votes in the Senate -- including Manchin's -- to get the Build Back Better plan through.
And at one point, the President suggested that if they couldn't trust him and wouldn't get behind the infrastructure bill last Friday, then they should just abandon the entire agenda, according to four sources familiar with his remarks.
"That really woke people up," one source said.
Biden faced a flurry of questions from a range of progressives, from Bush to Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas, but he sought to reassure all of them that the moderates in both chambers would ultimately fall in line.
Asked about the President's pitch after the late-night Friday vote, Jayapal told CNN that if the progressives didn't back the infrastructure bill, the entire agenda may have collapsed.
"The Build Back Better Act would have also probably gone down," said Jayapal, who initially told the President that evening she wasn't ready to support the infrastructure bill on its own. "So it was really like: How it was really how do we turn this into a win?"
The President's desire to get the infrastructure bill to his desk immediately was a message that was also delivered in a closed-door leadership meeting earlier in Pelosi's office, multiple sources said. South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, told his colleagues about the difficult political position that Biden was in and that he "needs a victory" and the House wouldn't leave without giving him one, according to sources familiar with the matter.
And to get there, they needed to bridge the trust deficit between moderates -- who refused to back the $1.9 trillion bill without estimates from the Congressional Budget Office -- and progressives, who wouldn't support the infrastructure bill without assurances from moderates that they'd back the larger plan.
After a suggestion made by Rep. Ted Lieu of California that a statement be drafted from moderates laying out some assurances, New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a member of the party leadership, and New Jersey Rep. Donald Norcross, a vice chair of the progressive caucus, began trying to piece together a statement with the moderates, led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey.
After back-and-forth within the progressive caucus, Neguse along with progressive Reps. Jimmy Gomez of California, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Mondaire Jones of New York went to hash out a deal with moderate Democrats in the Longworth office of another Blue Dog Democrat, Florida Rep. Stephanie Murphy.
After hours of negotiating, it ultimately came down to Jayapal and Gottheimer. The two agreed to a deal initially floated by the Congressional Black Caucus: there would be two votes that night: One to pass the infrastructure bill, which moderates had been demanding, and the other to approve the rule governing floor debate for the $1.9 trillion bill, a key progressive demand. But the $1.9 trillion plan would not get a final vote until after the CBO reported on its costs.
Yet progressives wanted the vote on the rule first, not trusting the moderates to support the procedural vote once the infrastructure bill was passed. But moderates were fearful that even more Republicans would defect on the infrastructure bill if the rule on the social safety net package were approved first.
Ultimately, the moderates' request won out -- but not before Jayapal looked each of the four moderates in the eyes to get their commitments that they would stick to their statement that they would back the Build Back Better bill by next week assuming the CBO provides "fiscal information" reassuring them that its costs would be completely offset.
Asked if he trusted the moderates, Jones paused for several seconds and sighed then said: "When we sign statements like that, and when we do press conferences together to that effect, then people are deserving of our trust."
With the House on the cusp of approving the $1.9 trillion bill, Democrats say Biden will have to employ similar tactics with Manchin. And they say that recent comments that Manchin has made that he plans to work with the President, gives them some hope.
"He wants to move forward, and we owe it to the President to move forward," Manchin told CNN recently.
CNN's Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.