Pramila Jayapal on the Fate of the Build Back Better Act

On Sunday, Joe Manchin, the centrist Democratic senator from West Virginia, appeared on Fox News to say that he would not support President Biden’s signature piece of legislation, the Build Back Better Act. The announcement came after months of negotiations in which Democrats made significant cuts to the bill—which aims to fund both climate-change mitigation…

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On Sunday, Joe Manchin, the centrist Democratic senator from West Virginia, appeared on Fox News to say that he would not support President Biden’s signature piece of legislation, the Build Back Better Act. The announcement came after months of negotiations in which Democrats made significant cuts to the bill—which aims to fund both climate-change mitigation and an expansion of social welfare—in order to secure the backing of Manchin, one of the most conservative members of the Democrats’ Senate majority. A $2.2-trillion version of Build Back Better has already passed the House of Representatives, but Manchin has said that he is unwilling to spend more than $1.75 trillion on the bill, and claims that he is rejecting it out of concerns about inflation, the pandemic, and the national debt.

In response to Manchin’s announcement, Representative Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and one of Build Back Better’s most fervent advocates, said in a statement that the senator had “betrayed his commitment not only to the President and Democrats in Congress but most importantly, to the American people.” Jayapal also stated on Monday that progressives had already made many concessions by agreeing to significantly cut down Build Back Better’s price tag, and would look to President Biden to accomplish the bill’s objectives through executive action. I spoke with Jayapal by phone on Tuesday. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Where does Build Back Better stand now?

I don’t think we know. I think that we have been negotiating in good faith all these months with Senator Manchin, and Senator Manchin made a commitment to the President, the President made a commitment to us, and that did not happen. Senator Manchin has a different characterization, but the reality is that we don’t know what the next steps are. We’re pushing very hard for it to pass the Senate in the most robust form possible. But, honestly, I think we can’t rely just on Build Back Better, and that’s why we’re taking a two-track strategy to do everything we can to move it legislatively, and to call on the President to take a number of executive actions that are going to lower costs, which many families are dealing with right now, as the child-tax-credit check does not go out in January, and help people deal with the health-care crisis of the Omicron surge.

At this point, why not put together a bill that meets all of Manchin’s specific demands and then just try to pass it? And, if he votes it down, then everyone can see that. What’s the downside of that approach?

Well, the downside is: What are his demands? I mean, the frameworks that he agreed to were his demands. That’s what he agreed to. [Manchin never publicly agreed to the framework Biden put forth at the end of October, though he did tweet,“President Biden’s framework is the product of months of negotiations and input from all members of the Democratic Party who share a common goal to deliver for the American people.” In a statement following Manchin’s announcement, on Sunday, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, criticized the senator’s “inexplicable reversal” as a “breach of his commitments” to the President. The senator declined to comment through a spokesperson.]

Didn’t he say he wanted a bill without an extension of the child tax credit, and to choose fewer long-term programs over many short-term measures, and that it not be above $1.8 trillion?

Well, the bill that was the framework was $1.75 trillion, and he agreed to it. So my only point is, sure, we can try to do that, but we’re negotiating with somebody who changes his mind constantly. So I don’t know why people think that if we go down this track—and we have to, because we don’t have another choice—that we’re going to be able to depend on what he says today. Just in my conversation with him, there were a number of different messages, some contradictory.

What were those messages?

I’m not going to go into it, but I’ll just say that there were different things that he was saying at different times. It makes it very difficult to come to an agreement. I think that, since the President negotiated the framework with Senator Manchin and got the commitment from him to support that framework, the President’s going to have to go back and come to some agreement and move it very quickly before he can change his mind again. But I think it’s just difficult to negotiate with somebody who changes their mind all the time.

Absolutely, but am I correct that he’s been fairly consistent on something below two trillion dollars, something without a child tax credit, and a bill without temporary programs, but, instead, one that would fund fewer programs and fund them permanently?

Well, it’s not correct, compared to the framework he committed to. That was the commitment that Senator Manchin made to the President, to support that framework. It only had a year of the child tax credit, because he didn’t want to do more. It was under two trillion dollars, and it had all these various programs that were not for the full ten years. So I just want people to understand that when we talk about “Well, let’s see what he wants to do,” that was what we did already.

What does committing to the framework mean? Because my sense is that he released some statements saying that he wanted to work on the bill, but it was clear that the Senate bill would not look much like the bill that passed the House. Is that accurate?

No, I don’t think so. I think ninety per cent of the bill that passed the House was the framework. If you look at the framework, it was quite detailed. And that was something that the Progressive Caucus had pushed for. I said to the President, “Make sure that it’s got all the parameters in it, because when something goes from a framework to a text, it becomes very difficult.” People say, “Oh, well, that’s not what I agreed to.” And that’s always the problem with a framework. But it wasn’t just a top-line number; it actually went through in detail what the different pieces were—it had a one-year tax credit, it had child care and pre-K at four hundred billion, and it articulated exactly how that was going to be rolled out.

And what about how the bill was paid for?

That was in there as well. But what Senator Manchin wanted was actually what we wanted, which was a robust corporate tax. And that was something that Senator [Kyrsten] Sinema did not agree to. So the pieces that were cobbled together in the framework, which both Manchin and Sinema were a part of negotiating and both agreed to, actually had a whole host of other tax provisions to pay for it. [Like Manchin, Sinema did not publicly commit to voting for the bill. The senator did not respond to a request for comment.]

Look, the thing about these senators is that they each act like they’re the only ones. Senator Manchin wanted certain tax provisions that Senator Sinema didn’t want. And so the ultimate framework was a compromise position that got both of them on board, and the Progressive Caucus endorsed that framework because we thought it was the final negotiation that was done in good faith.

How do you think the President has dealt with this?

I think the White House made a mistake in splitting the two bills apart, and I think that’s where a lot of this started. We split them apart, and we allowed the negotiations to be all around the infrastructure bill with really no attention to eighty-five per cent of the President’s agenda in the Build Back Better Act. I think that, when the Senate passed infrastructure without a commitment, I think that was probably at the White House’s urging, but I don’t think that should have happened, either. I think they should have kept them together and gotten a commitment at that point.

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