Democrats Frustrated They Can’t Pass Biden’s Build Back Better Bill

They're searching for good times. But just wait and see.

The AP’s Alan Fram has a blinding flash of the obvious: “Time is no ally as Dems strain to finish Biden’s $2T bill.”

If President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion social and environment package was a Broadway show, its seven months on Congress’ stage could qualify it as a hit. But lawmaking isn’t show business, and many Democrats worry that with the curtain falling soon on 2021, time is not their friend.

Each passing day threatens to push final action into 2022, an election year when control of Congress will be at stake and lawmakers will become ever more wary of casting tough votes.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wants to end his party’s disagreements and finally squeeze the bill through his chamber before Christmas. Indeed, holiday deadlines are a time-tested way of prodding lawmakers to solve disputes so they can go home. And momentum toward approving Biden’s top domestic initiative — the House passed an initial version last month — seems to make prospects strong.

Well, no. Anyone who has any knowledge of how the US Congress works knows that getting a bill through the House is and always has been the easy part. The Speaker sets the agenda and can pretty much get the majority to do her bidding while the opposition has little means of resistance. In the Senate, with rare exception, the minority party has all manner of levers to thwart the will of the majority. And, as anyone who has been paying attention over the last eleven months knows, there are at least two members of the 50-50 “majority” party who aren’t playing ball.

Yet while Schumer and other Democrats express confidence that his target date will be met, some are anxious it won’t and are concerned about damaging consequences.

The New York senator needs time to work out final compromises with resistant party moderates including West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin. Also chewing up the calendar will be tedious but crucial rules sessions with the Senate parliamentarian, plus work on major bills on defense policy and extending the government’s borrowing authority to avoid a federal default.

Governing is a chore, to be sure.

The longer it takes to finish the $2 trillion package, the longer it can be vulnerable to factors — predictable and unforeseen, economic and political — that might complicate Schumer’s task.

“You let things sit around here, particularly past a Christmas vacation and into an election year, and that is toxic,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., a leader of her party’s progressives.

Facing unanimous Republican opposition, Democrats will need all their votes in the 50—50 Senate. They’ll also need all but three in the House, which will need to pass the bill again with Senate revisions before sending it to Biden.

“Everybody knows we can’t walk away from this. We’ve got to do it and we’ve got to do it as quickly as we can,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. He pointedly added, “There are different definitions of ‘as quickly as we can’ from different people.”

But, again, it’s not at all clear that Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have the least bit of interest in passing this bill. And, without them, there is no bill.

Democrats are frustrated that each week they spend battling with each other reduces the time they’ll have to sell the legislation’s initiatives to voters. The package includes free preschool, new Medicare hearing benefits and steps to curb climate change, paid for largely with tax boosts on wealthy people and big corporations.

“We should be finishing this up so we can go start talking to people about what’s in it, instead of having everybody sort of focused on our navel gazing,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

Sure, it would be useful for those in Democratic districts or Blue and Purple states to tout these mostly-popular measures. But there’s a very real chance that some of them won’t be in a final bill if it does pass. Manchin, in particular, seems to oppose most climate change measures—whether because he represents a coal-mining state or because his top donors are in the energy business—and tax hikes.

Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have already forced cuts in the legislation, which not too long ago had a $3.5 trillion price tag. Neither has promised to heed Schumer’s Christmas timetable, and Manchin hasn’t dropped his insistence on removing a new paid family-leave program and provisions encouraging cleaner energy.

“I haven’t committed to anything, I haven’t committed to a thing to anybody, to any human being,” Manchin said this week about the bill.

I think Manchin wants to pass a much smaller, less ambitious bill. He’s already rested massive concessions but, apparently, not in exchange for a promise to support the compromise bill. As noted multiple times over the last few months, I’m not at all sure what Sinema wants, other than attention.

And Democrats’ marathon talks over the measure are giving Republicans time to use the country’s bout with rising inflation, which is showing no signs of going away, as one of their chief weapons against it. The GOP argues that the $2 trillion bill would push prices higher by incentivizing a shift to cleaner fuels, and flushing more cash into an already overheated economy.

Sure. But 0 Republicans are going to vote for the bill, regardless. The question is whether Manchin and Sinema can be brought on board. And, potentially, whether the Progressive Caucus in the House would balk at the neutered bill, seeing no bill better than a compromise.

Manchin has cited inflation fears as a rationale for slowing work on the bill and paring it, and he will no doubt be watching the government’s next measurement of consumer prices, due Dec. 10. His continued insistence on changes despite months of negotiation is rankling colleagues.

“I mean, God bless Joe Manchin, but how many months is this going on?” said No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois. “I mean, I told him a month ago, ‘For God’s sake, Joe, declare victory and close the deal.'”

Again, I’m befuddled that Schumer and company are negotiating against themselves. It makes no sense to make concessions to Manchin that aren’t accompanied by a public promise to vote for the compromise package.

Further incentive for Democrats to finish the legislation this month is the Dec. 31 expiration of parts of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that Congress approved in March.

That includes a larger children’s tax credit and monthly payments of those benefits to millions of families, which would end unless lawmakers renew it. Congress could revive the credit retroactively next year, but many lawmakers want to avoid any interruption.

Democrats still must solve other disagreements, including over how to let people deduct more state and local taxes without making the provision a giveaway to the richest Americans. And there are other factors running out the clock.

Um, there is no way to increase the SALT deduction without it advantaging those with more money. Pretty much by definition, those paying a lot of state and local taxes are those with expensive homes in the most expensive metropolitan areas. That’s just how it works.

Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough needs time to decide whether any of the bill’s sections must be dropped because they violate the chamber’s special rules for budget legislation. A Democratic plan to help millions of immigrants remain in the U.S. is in the balance, and the process is tedious, with lots of back and forth between Senate aides and MacDonough.

“We’ve been talking about this and working on this for months,” said Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn. “And so let’s just get it done.”

I get the frustration, I really do. But, unless Senate leadership can nail Manchin and Sinema down on what they will vote for and craft a bill accordingly, this is just all noise.

FILED UNDER: Climate Change, Congress, Environment, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jay L Gischer says:

    I would be befuddled by the Majority Leader’s behavior, except I hold to one thing: He’s not an idiot. He can sometimes seem like one, for sure, but he can’t be to do the things he’s done.

    My conclusion is that we are being treated to what some call dingbat kabuki. Something just doesn’t fit in the public picture, for sure. So that means we don’t actually know what’s happening.

  2. Stormy Dragon says:

    As soon as BIF passed by itself, BBB was dead. The Democrats never should have split the bill to begin with.

    It also should be obvious now that negotiating with Manchin and Sinema is a waste of time as neither can be trusted to keep their word.

  3. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    Schumer’s not an idiot, but he’s from another era and the “game” has moved beyond him. We need Democratic leadership that gets modern politics.

  4. Matt says:

    Sinema wants money and attention but mostly money. She has spent exactly 0 time talking with her constituents and a whole lot of time having fundraisers and private time with donors. Donors who are very happy that she’s blocking stuff. If she can’t get re-elected she wants a cushie job when she leaves. She just wants to sell out and doesn’t care that she’s lost long time friends in the process..

  5. Modulo Myself says:

    Sinema is just another careerist weirdo with little charisma, no talent, but enough creep to give her an appeal to debate-me centrists and rich zeroes from the Sun Belt. She’s the type of person who gets promoted in mid-tier places because nobody has the energy to deal with her nonsense. I feel like the Democrats could have taken a different course in the mid-oughts–look for people who aren’t just so obviously grasping and fake, i.e. people who are actually respected by their peers. More rough around the edges, some degree of being an actual fuck-up, and with a core persona that doesn’t scream Xanax and emptiness.

  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    with a core persona that doesn’t scream Xanax and emptiness.

    Nice. I would not be surprised if I used that line, or a version of it, and claimed it as my own.

  7. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    I feel like the Democrats could have taken a different course in the mid-oughts–look for people who aren’t just so obviously grasping and fake, i.e. people who are actually respected by their peers.

    I forget where I read it, but I saw a good article with the thesis that the current Democrat Party did to retail politics what MBAs did to most companies: their goal is actually to do as little as possible while keeping their “revenue” stream going.

  8. Scott F. says:

    “The GOP argues that the $2 trillion bill would push prices higher by incentivizing a shift to cleaner fuels, and flushing more cash into an already overheated economy.”

    Sure. But 0 Republicans are going to vote for the bill, regardless.

    Just thought I’d pull this quote out of another long post about how the Democrats are misplaying their dreadful hand.

  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    I’ll commit some heresy here. This is not the time for raising SALT caps, nor is it the time for a lot of child-friendly programs. This is the time to deal with climate change.

    Biden has done his level best to keep his commitments to progressives, but if there’s a national outcry in support of parental leave, child tax credits, etc…, I’m not hearing it. At a time when the realities of life and money are forcing Europeans to cut back on social spending, the left’s sweet but stupid notion that we can become Sweden, is particularly silly.

    In fact, encouraging more births through safety net spending has worked precisely zero times, anywhere, so if that’s part of the motivation, it’s futile. The social democratic countries have birth rates well below replacement, and dropping. Which, by the way, is a good thing for climate change – few things are more long-term destructive to the environment than a newborn American or European.

    Climate change is live or die, parental leave is not. If you’re going to tell people the world is on the brink, don’t simultaneously try to tell them we need more money for wealthy Californians and New Yorkers. Stop trying to fight every fight everywhere all at once. Now, if BBB dies it’ll be seen as a terrible blow to Biden.

  10. gVOR08 says:

    Why do we not state the obvious? There are, at most, 48 senators who are not in the pay of the Billionaire Boys Club. And the BBC, aside from a general aversion to things that might raise taxes, isn’t so much interested in thwarting the content of the bill as in damaging Ds politically.

  11. gVOR08 says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Biden is looking at political fundamentals. If he, and Democrats, are to survive to fight climate change he needs good economic growth in the second and third quarters of 2024. The way to have a strong economy is to push money into it. If GOPs get a trifecta in 2024 we can kiss off both the climate and democracy. I don’t really care if that money is called raised SALT limits, repaired bridges, or John Doe, as long as it works.

  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    BBB if passed tomorrow would not have a noticeable effect before the mid-terms. The economy does not seem to need stimulation at this point, there’s plenty of free-floating cash, huge demand, lots of jobs, and wages are rising. And we’ve already promised a trillion dollars plus for infrastructure which will also not have a real effect before mid-terms. It’s not the economy, stupid, not this time.

  13. Scott F. says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    This is the time to deal with climate change.

    Yes, it is. But, climate change is harder to do and harder to sell. They’ll never get Manchin’s vote for policy that hurts coal. So, at some future date when it’s too late is the time the US will actually deal with climate change.

  14. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    BBB if passed tomorrow would not have a noticeable effect before the mid-terms. The economy does not seem to need stimulation at this point, there’s plenty of free-floating cash, huge demand, lots of jobs, and wages are rising.

    The existing child tax credit from the Covid bills will expire before the midterms. Not passing this is going to appear to be a tax increase for folks with kids.

    The fact that Biden hasn’t been running around praising himself for that tax credit, and cutting child poverty in half, to the point where we are all sick of hearing it, is unfortunate.

    Climate might be more important, but it isn’t popular with anyone outside of a fringe that can see longer than a year into the future. Climate legislation has to be slipped in with popular things.

  15. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    BBB is not going to pass. This year, next year or any other year during my remaining lifetime. And if roads start crumbling or electric infrastructure fails or whatever, I fully expect to see Republicans object to Democrats overheating the economy and arguing that people should be driving less and using candles to read by–like God intended in the first place.

  16. Mister Bluster says:

    @Just nutha ignint God intended in the first place.

    If god intended for us to ride in cars we would have been born with wheels…

  17. Ken_L says:

    It’s always mystified me that Nancy Pelosi is regarded as some kind of Congressional genius. Ditto the president. The obvious way to get any of the BBB agenda through Congress was to include it all in one bill, and let the various Democratic interest groups wheel and deal until they reached an agreement everyone could accept. Splitting it into two was idiotic. It allowed Republicans to claim equal credit for the roads’n’bridges stuff, gave the self-described “moderates” all they cared about, and left the party wondering how to get all the rest past the Senate.

    There was still some faint hope while the House took the position that both bills had to be passed together, even if that still ultimately relied on the dodgy premise that there’d be no last minute double-cross from Manchin and Sinema. But for reasons which still defy understanding, the party bowed to pressure and passed the roads’n’bridges stuff in isolation. Now there is precisely no incentive for Manchin and Sinema to support the bill, so Occam’s Razor says they never will.

  18. flat earth luddite says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    and using candles to read by

    Read? You Godless Commie liberal bassard – you know good and well that the peeple must be ignorant. The GQP will tell them what to think (if anything) and when to think it!

  19. Lounsbury says:

    @Stormy Dragon: You would then have achieved 100% of nothing. Brilliant purity pony politics and sheer political incompetence.

  20. Michael Reynolds says:

    I’d forgotten about the expiration.

    But as to popular measures we can use to sneak in climate legislation, what popular policies?

  21. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    Please do expand on what a better, more up-to-date Majority Leader might do that isn’t being done. More tweets?

  22. Lounsbury says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Nothing pratical of course. Threaten Manchin and Sinema with threats that would only really strenghten them in the end.

    The body of the permanent “glass half empty” Left Commentariat here rather remind me of a movie scene, from A Few Good Men and the sour comment on ‘Strenuously Object’ demarche of the Demi Moore character, she all full of naive passion for the right thing.

    Their strain of reasoning resolves to “because this is the Right Thing , then if we just argue and harrangue long-enough, the unconvinced [aka uncoverted] shall come around.” Something of a secular version of the proverbial street corner preachers.

    Overall it rather seems to be that rather than the error being to split the bills, that rather they should have been decoupled well before when it became abundantly clear that the hostage taking had, relative to the two key Senate votes, rather no leverage at all, rather like the suicidal jumper threatening to jump and the uncaring observer responding “fine, go ahead” … “no I really mean it…”etc.

    Neither Sinema and Manchin wanted or needed for their calculations the bills enough, it was an ineffective hostage taking that only saw Democratic political power ebb away by a too public and obvious demonstration of political weakness. Success breeds success, and failure breeds failure in political capital terms.

    Really in the face of a razor thin vote margin and a clicking clock to a set of mid term elections which it rather looks like the Democrats will be their clocks cleaned and lose control of both houses, they should be looking to get what wins are possible with actual votes, not Should Be votes, and then shamelessly marketing said wins in popular meat-and-potatoes language to the middle America.

    The Orange Cretin provides few good lessons, but this one is a valid one -relentless marketing and not looking back (rather than wailing and bemoaning half filled glasses and undercutting one’s own success) can indeed build an image of success and indeed build momentum.

  23. Lounsbury says:

    Regarding climate
    @Michael Reynolds:
    @Scott F.:

    What could be popular, and things that can advance the adaptation agenda is some scale spending on enabling infrastructure and on both bring-to-market as well as moonshot R&D (spinkled in porkish ways in the right geographic that need not itself run head-long into Mr Manchin’s interests (to use him as something of the stand in broadly).

    The Left Greeny rather love to bang on about favoured hair-shirt responses to climate change. The French yellow-vests rather highlight what happens when the hair-shirt approach is actually attempted.

    However, on the positive side, Renewables market competitiveness has arrived for grid production solutions on levelised cost basis (average) but the enormous problem of intermittancy and need for decarbonising baseloads remains.

    On the intermittancy, there are enormous potential gains from long-distance wheeling of power, but the American grid is a balkanised mess that is like much of your infra, stuck in 1960s/70s – and some serious integration spending as well as modernisation and very serious expansion of long-distance transmission (particularly with attention to new RE production areas, rather different than the old centrals siting) can help significantly expand market competitiveness of RE – the market with such can very much go a long-way to killing Mr Manchin’s coal, sans leaving Democratic Party fingerprints on such killing.

    And for R&D, both bring to market (notably in storage, also perhaps transmission, and some generation in PV, in geo techs) and moonshot, spending some hundreds of billions there provides some potential porkish opportunities. Not mere single billions or tens of billions. Throw very serious money at both bring to market and longshot / moonshot and you have some nice porkish things, plus acceleration of cheaper power (and if you are investing also in the grid upgrading to enable for real example your central plains marginal land farmer to rent his land for solar and wind to be resold on continental level, well make sure you communicate on it).

    Of course this is boring engineering and science, no where near as fun as sniffily casting aspersion on the life choices of suburbanites who vote the wrong way or donor classes and billionnaire clubs, etc.

    (now what do I know, I merely actually invest in grid scale RE, and have to face the intermittancy and grid maximisation issues in the investment cases…)

  24. Michael Reynolds says:

    Many on the left don’t understand the difference between being right and having power. It’s an outlook that comes not from business, or from labor, or from government service, but from academia. The far left thinks the world is a campus and it’s all about getting the correct answers on the test.

    On the good-but-too-late front, I’m starting to see a slow-dawning realization among progressives that they are not only failing to win hearts and minds, but succeeding at getting people to hate them.

    BTW, I have an idea what Manchin is after. He’s done in West Virginia. He won’t win re-election with a D after his name, and I cannot imagine that ambitious West Virginia Republicans would stand aside and let him run as a Republican. He can’t win the governorship, either. If he wants to stay in politics what’s left? An independent run for the White House. Crazy, sure, but it’s a crazy time.

  25. Lounsbury says:

    @Michael Reynolds: It seems a very strong and defensible analysis that the intello side of the Left is too ascendant to the detriment of pragmatic broad politial utreach – with far too much eggheadism in driver seat (I do say this as a person with three graduate degrees, an absurdity to be sure, but I am myself an egghead by any standards). What one of your Democratic Party sages, the bald one whose name escapes, called the Faculty Lounge politics, which seems right.

  26. Dude Kembro says:

    Wouldn’t faculty lounge campus politics include focusing on climate change rather than on bread and butter issues like childcare tax credits, because climate change is the “correct answer” given its crisis status?

    Doesn’t compute to fault “the left” for wanting to be right rather than have power while saying Democrats should abandon BBB’s child-and-homeowner friendly policies for climate purism.

    This media-driven handwringing is overblown. Obama took office in January 2009, Obamacare didn’t pass unti March 2010. Trump’s tax cuts for the rich didn’t pass until three days before Christmas 2017. Both had stronger Senate majorities than Biden.

    I know holding Biden to impossible standards is all the rage these days, but the guy already got two huge bills (Rescue Act & BIF) passed in less time. Why is everyone acting like the sky is falling because BBB isn’t done yet, like the timeline is unusual. It’s not.

    Not a Sinema fan, but she (and Schumer) are right to avoid negotiating by media. Manchin and Sinema are not going to sink Biden and their party. Everyone, including them, will make compromises. BBB will pass, and it will be a huge bill and a huge deal that does much for families and climate. And the media can move on to attacking Biden and Democrats for some other imaginary crisis.