Biden’s World Desperate to Solve Manchin’s Mystery

“The White House is suffering with the Venn diagram asking Manchin and Sinema questions,” said a person familiar with the Manchin and White House dynamics.

Currently, informal reconciliation talks focus on three main areas: climate change, prescription drug reform, and shortage reduction. While the White House has yet to acknowledge that other elements of social spending have been dropped from the discussion, several people familiar with the talks said President Joe Biden’s ambitions for child and elderly care are all but dead.

But even getting a simplistic reconciliation package through an evenly divided Senate will depend solely on Biden’s ability to convince Manchin and Sinema to agree. And seven months after the White House first attempted to solve the Manchinema mystery last September, it’s clear that little has changed.

White House officials have yet to decipher Manchin’s demands. Some employees believe that he will never get to yes. Others admit they’ve run out of ideas and even turn to political activists outside the White House for help in getting a West Virginia Democrat on board. The annoyance deepened this week when the centrist senator indicated that he also wants to pass a bipartisan energy bill, a workaround few believe will be anything but a distraction. And some of Hill’s aides said it could upstage the larger reconciliation deal.

“People are just burned by Manchin,” a senior Democratic official who worked to revive the bill said of rising sentiment in parts of the White House. “That he can’t be trusted.

According to people familiar with the process, the president was hesitant to interact directly with Manchin for fear that he might appear helpless. Even if the two start formal negotiations, there is no guarantee that the senator will agree to the deal.

If the White House somehow wins over Manchin, his reward will be a date with Cinema, who may prove even more difficult to please. While senior officials have been urging Manchin over the past few weeks to restart reconciliation talks, a person close to Sinema told POLITICO that she has not yet been contacted by the White House about the matter.

“Given how inefficient Congress is right now, someone takes too much food if they think they can cope with losing weight. [Build Back Better] in July or August,” said Jim Manley, who was a top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “Congress just can’t handle it. It’s now or never, and I’m leaning toward never.”

Despite the lack of immediate progress, Biden is keen to make reconciliation efforts the centerpiece of his midterm message, drawing on the belief that his economic vision contrasts well with the Republican Party’s agenda proposed by National Republican Senate Committee Chairman Rick Scott (R-Fl.) , which includes a wide-ranging tax increase, an administration official said.

The White House declined to share details of its conversations with lawmakers but disputes any internal grievances with Manchin.

“Anyone who expresses such feelings is not speaking for the White House,” spokesman Andrew Bates said, adding that the negotiations with the senator were “clear and in good faith.”

On Tuesday, Manchin said he remained open to a party bill aimed at curbing inflation and reducing the deficit, although he declined to set any timetable for negotiations.

However, leading Democrats are privately viewing the next few days as pivotal in determining whether there is a chance of passing a major law that could shake up the party’s medium-term outlook. There is growing paranoia that Manchin, who recently participated in bipartisan talks, is deliberately or unknowingly allowing Republicans to stall any reconciliation package that Democrats might agree among themselves.

The White House has resigned itself to debating a much smaller bill than Biden anticipated last April, when he first unveiled a multi-trillion dollar plan aimed at addressing a number of critical domestic issues.

Instead, administration officials sought to win over Manchin by focusing their efforts on his interests: energy supplies, prescription drug reform, and hundreds of billions of dollars in deficit reduction. This proposed package would be smaller than the $1.7 trillion offer that fell apart in December over Manchin’s objections, while still allowing the White House to win several climate and health wins.

But so far, in conversations with Manchin and his staff, senior administration officials have not yet determined what exactly the senator wants in the bill. The White House hopes to make more progress this week towards a formal resumption of negotiations after the Senate resumes session, people familiar with the matter say.

If Manchin agrees to sit at the table, they say, the goal is to work out a structure that the senator can take over.

“This is a one-man show,” said a person close to the leadership of the Democratic Party. “You can’t continue until you’ve nailed that one person.”

Even if the White House manages to finally get a commitment from Manchin, it is bound to face another hurdle at Sinema. Indeed, making a deal with the former without knowing whether the latter will agree to the tax hike it has fought against is a gamble. The Arizona senator has insisted for months that she will not support a corporate tax rate hike and an increase in the capital gains tax as part of the package—two items that Manchin has placed at the center of his reconciliation wish list.

This creates a potential confrontation that Sinema will not deem it necessary to retreat from; she has argued several times already that her support for a host of other fundraisers is in line with the positions the Biden administration and Congressional leaders took back in December.

“Any new, narrow proposal, including deficit reduction, already has enough tax reform options to pay for it,” said Hannah Hurley, a spokesperson for Sinema, stressing that those options are “supported by the White House.”

In interviews, several people familiar with the process suggested that the administration is underestimating the difficulty Sinema could create for any potential reconciliation deal, especially since it has paid far less attention to its concerns instead of reaching an agreement with Manchin.

“It’s definitely not settled with income,” said a person close to the administration. “And it’s not clear who’s going to settle it.”

All this represents a rocky road that Biden and his senior officials will have to go through in just a few weeks.

Democrats widely acknowledge that the structure, which could win 50 votes in the Senate, must be completed before the House adjourns for Memorial Day. This would give the party until July 4th to draft the bill and decide if it could be passed before the interim period begins.

Ahead of this sprint, Senate staff prepared legislative language and cost estimates for the various provisions so that they can be turned into an overall package as quickly as possible. Advocacy groups, meanwhile, are preparing final campaigns to resolve their minor issues at the last minute.

But first the White House needs to convince Manchin and Sinema to finally agree.

“The room that decides what will be in the final package if it comes out will be very small,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president of politics at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way.

Sam Stein contributed to this report.