Manchin digs in

The Virginia gubernatorial race is the big news of the week. The outcome of the race, whatever it is, will remain Topic A for a while, as it should.

However, the struggle of congressional Democrats to pass their two spending bills — infrastructure and reconciliation — is the big news of this Autumn, and continues to provide headlines.

Yesterday’s development, reported by the Wall Street Journal, was Sen. Joe Manchin’s statement that he won’t vote for a reconciliation bill until there’s a vote on the infrastructure bill. Manchin declared:

The political games [the Democratic left is playing] have to stop. It is time to vote on the [infrastructure] bill—up or down—and then go home and explain to your constituents the decision you made.

Manchin also directed pointed remarks at the way Democrats are writing their reconciliation bill. He said: “As more of the real details outlined in the basic framework are released, what I see are shell games, budget gimmicks, that makes the real cost of the so-called 1.75 trillion dollar bill estimated to be almost twice that amount” unless the programs in the legislation are phased out.

This, Manchin stated, “is a recipe for economic crisis.” He added, “none of us should ever misrepresent to the American people what the real cost of legislation is.”

Does this mean Manchin will vote against reconciliation unless Democrats stop their “shell games and budget gimmicks,” level with the American people, and come up with a package that isn’t a recipe for economic crisis? Maybe.

The Wall Street Journal’s editors read Manchin’s comments as suggesting that he’s prepared to vote against any bill he thinks will hurt the economy. I read them the same way.

At a minimum, Manchin seems firm in his commitment not to vote to expand Medicare as long as its trust fund remains “insolvent.” That’s another way of saying he won’t vote to expand Medicare.

I think it’s also clear that the Democrats are a ways off from coming up with a reconciliation package Manchin can vote for. As the West Virginia Senator says:

I just think it’s going to take quite a while. You’re talking about overhauling the entire tax code. That is tremendous. And there needs to be input. . .and we’re not in a rush right now.

If the Democrats want to delay the infrastructure vote for “quite a while” — in other words, continue to hold it hostage to passing a reconciliation bill — they can. But the “hostage” strategy hasn’t worked so far. Manchin hasn’t softened his positions on reconciliation in order to get a vote on infrastructure.

The Democrats seem to think that passing the infrastructure bill would give Joe Biden a badly needed lift. If so, it makes sense to pass that bill without waiting to formulate a reconciliation package that can get 50 votes.

However, at last word, the president in need of a victory seemed still to be on board with the strategy of insisting that the two spending bills be coupled. And it’s not certain that even if Biden gave up on this strategy, he could bring enough Democratic representatives along to pass the infrastructure bill standing alone.

Today’s election in Virginia might bear on where the spending packages go from here. For example, if Terry McAuliffe loses in “blue” Virginia, Democrats may become desperate enough to pass one of their spending bills — infrastructure, the seemingly popular one — though it might take Republican votes in the House to accomplish this, even in that scenario.

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