Key swing vote Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia offered a grim pronouncement on the status of President Joe Biden’s remaining domestic agenda, saying on Tuesday that the Build Back Better act is “dead,” underscoring how the sweeping proposal to expand the social safety net has hit a wall with no clear path forward even as Democrats hope to eventually pass some kind of scaled-back version of the legislation.
Manchin’s objections to the legislation have been the central obstacle to progress for Democrats with the West Virginia moderate dealing a major blow to the proposal late last year by saying he would not vote for it, effectively ending months of painstaking negotiations. Now, as lawmakers turn their attention to a number of pressing agenda items, including an upcoming government funding deadline on February 18, Manchin is making clear that he does not believe restarting negotiations on Build Back Better is a top priority.
Asked on Tuesday about the status of Build Back Better, Manchin responded, “What Build Back Better bill? There is no, I mean, I don’t know what you all are talking about.”
Pressed by CNN on whether he has had talks on the proposal, Manchin said, “No, no, no, it’s dead.”
When asked later to elaborate on his comment that the legislation is “dead,” the West Virginia Democrat said, “If they’re talking about the whole big package, that’s gone.” On the possibility of supporting a smaller package, he said, “We’ll see what people come with. I don’t know.”
Manchin once again raised concerns over inflation and said that passing a government spending bill “has to be done first.” He also pointed to bipartisan efforts to reform the Electoral Count Act as a priority, saying those talks are “on a hot track now.”
Since Senate Democrats control only a narrow 50-50 partisan split, every single member of their caucus would need to support the legislation for it to pass under a process known as reconciliation, which would allow them to avoid a GOP filibuster.
That dynamic has given Manchin outsized influence over the process and the ability to stop Build Back Better altogether if the rest of his party can’t find a way to get him on board.
Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders whacked Manchin for saying Build Back Better is “dead.”
“When you have a proposal that has the overwhelming support of the American people, and it’s addressing the long neglected crises facing working people, we cannot allow that to die,” he said. “And if Mr. Manchin chooses to side with corporate America in this issue, that’s his business. But for me, and I think millions of Americans, we have got to fight for the needs of working families.”
After Manchin’s declaration in December that he did not support the proposal in its current form, Democrats have had to significantly reduce the scope of their ambitions and have instead expressed hope they can still pass key elements of the plan even if that means ultimately having to go forward with a far narrower package that would force them to discard other priorities. President Joe Biden has described the effort as passing “big chunks” of Build Back Better.
But Manchin has already set a high bar to passing a scaled-back version, previously saying that they are “starting from scratch” and will need to deal with pressing national issues – like the pandemic, inflation and the federal debt – before addressing a cornerstone of the White House’s agenda.
On Tuesday, Manchin further elaborated on his concerns and priorities.
“My main concern is inflation. The high costs to everyone in my state and around the country I hear from,” he said, “And also the geopolitical unrest we have in Ukraine. That’s going to be a big cost, some sooner than later. And on top of that: Covid. We have to see which way Covid goes, and what affect its going to have on our economy. Those are still the driving forces.”
Manchin told reporters on Monday that he has still not been involved in meetings about the future of Build Back Better, saying, “there’s not been any formal, basically, sit down meetings or things of that sort.”
“I’ve said I’m open to talk to everybody, I always have been,” he continued. “I just want to make sure we find a balance, and something we can afford, and do it and do it right, whatever we do.”
CNN’s Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.