Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) new focus on putting together an ambitious bipartisan energy and climate package is being met with strong skepticism from fellow Democrats who view it as a stalling tactic to avoid discussing President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.
Manchin told reporters this week that his focus is on crafting bipartisan energy legislation, which would center on proposals to incentivize green energy technologies and bolster the fossil fuel industry, and not on moving Biden’s most ambitious proposals with a budget reconciliation package.
But the talks over the bipartisan energy bill are at the earliest stages, and the chances of getting a deal are small.
“It’s not going anywhere,” said one Republican senator familiar with the talks who asserted there’s too much focus on capping emissions, taxing fossil fuels and subsidizing clean energy to pick up 10 GOP votes.
A second GOP senator briefed on the talks confirmed that the scope of the proposals being considered will severely limit Republican support for the bill.
“It’s going to be hard to get consensus on that,” the lawmaker said. “His initial list was [Build Back Better]. It’s methane tax, it’s border adjustment carbon tax, it’s green conservation corps, it’s a green bank. It’s too [far] left,” the lawmaker said.
Yet Manchin says he’s focused on getting an energy deal with Republicans. And it’s taking priority over any attempts to negotiate a budget reconciliation package that could pass the Senate with 50 Democratic votes.
Manchin told reporters Thursday that he has not met with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) since last week on trying to revive the stalled budget reconciliation bill.
“My main thing is inflation, fighting inflation,” he told reporters earlier in the week, waving away a question about whether he could support including Affordable Care Act-related health care subsidies in reconciliation package.
Democratic senators worry the bipartisan energy talks are Manchin’s excuse to avoid negotiating a budget reconciliation package, which some of them believe needs to get sketched out by Memorial Day to have a chance of passing.
“We’re running out of time. The calendar is staring us in the face, and I’m concerned we have no time to waste on conversations that are futile,” said one Democratic senator.
A second Senate Democrat also expressed anxiety that Manchin, the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, may chew up several weeks of the Senate calendar trying to hash out an energy deal with Republicans without getting a result and stall any movement on Biden’s agenda.
“I share that concern,” the senator said.
The lawmaker added that Manchin appears to be entirely focused on the bipartisan energy talks, which took place throughout this week.
“Chairman Manchin seems genuinely interested in the opinions of everyone at the table,” the source said.
At this point, several Democratic senators are close to giving up hope that Manchin will support any kind of budget reconciliation package, given his oft-stated desire to work in a bipartisan way with Republicans.
“I’m the skeptic on budget reconciliation,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “I announced when I came back here in January it was not on my agenda. I was going to really focus on everything outside of reconciliation.”
He said it’s ultimately up to Manchin and fellow centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) whether a budget reconciliation bill moves, but he’s not counting on it.
Manchin’s opposition to Biden’s Build Back Better agenda has helped him boost his job approval in West Virginia, a state former President Trump carried with 69 percent of the vote in 2020.
The senator has raised his job approval rating 17 points compared to last year by derailing elements of Biden’s agenda that most appeal to liberals.
Senate Democrats on Thursday expressed hope that Manchin will be able to figure out quickly whether an energy deal with Republicans is possible.
“I am hopeful that out of this in another week or two will come clarity about where we just are not going to come to agreement and where we really could come to agreement,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who has participated in the bipartisan energy talks. “So far we’re simply going through the component parts of the energy and climate provisions.”
Coons, a close Biden ally, argued that a bipartisan energy deal, if reached, would not remove the need to also pass a budget reconciliation package on a party-line vote.
“I don’t see how we raise anything like the kind of revenue we need, both for robust tax incentives for scaling [up] clean energy demonstrations and for the deficit reduction that Sen. Manchin also wants, without reconciliation,” he said.
Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), a Republican involved in the talks, said they are at the earliest stages, which means it could take weeks longer to hash out a framework, let alone draft legislation.
“It’s very preliminary. People are exploring each other’s views on what types of measures might actually make a real difference. But I think we’re far, far away from coming to agreement or even thinking about writing legislation,” he said.
This means the prospect of getting a handshake deal with Manchin about what to include in a reconciliation package that would move with Democratic votes alone is not likely before Memorial Day.
Democratic aides say the reconciliation instructions needed to circumvent a Republican filibuster of popular agenda items, such as a minimum corporate tax or prescription drug reform, will expire at the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
They say the drop-dead deadline for getting a reconciliation bill passed is the start of the August recess on Aug. 6.
Durbin said frustration is running high in the Democratic caucus over the inability to get more of Biden’s agenda items, such as Build Back Better and voting rights legislation, over the finish line because of a lack of unity in the caucus.
“There is a high level of frustration that we sustain on a regular basis,” he said.
“As far as Joe’s concerned, it’s his vote and Kyrsten Sinema’s vote that will really decide whether we have reconciliation,” he said.