Opinion | Joe Manchin is foolish to indefinitely hold up the reconciliation bill - The Washington Post

Joe Manchin III has a bad case of the slows.

Abraham Lincoln once diagnosed George McClellan with the same problem. The Army general offered excuse after excuse to justify dawdling at key moments in the Civil War. This allowed Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, with a smaller force, to outmaneuver Union troops.

Manchin’s call last week to “hit a strategic pause on the budget-reconciliation legislation,” with no end in sight, is uncannily McClellanesque. The moderate West Virginia Democrat expressed fear about debt, inflation and the possibility that another coronavirus variant could necessitate more stimulus spending down the road. He said he will never vote for a package as large as the $3.5 trillion being considered.

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The senator’s broader concerns are legitimate, but his op-ed last week for the Wall Street Journal argued against straw men. His desire to indefinitely postpone consideration of the primary legislative vehicle for advancing President Biden’s domestic agenda could spell doom for Democrats.

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To be sure, Manchin is in the driver’s seat, because Democrats cannot spare a single vote in the 50-50 Senate (with Vice President Harris breaking ties). In other words, he has the power to slim down the bill to his liking and ensure it is fully paid for without accounting gimmicks.

But Manchin talks about the reconciliation bill as though it’s another economic stimulus, akin to the $1.9 trillion covid-19 relief package that passed this year without being paid for. He knows better.

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Because it’s not subject to the filibuster, reconciliation is the only realistic way for Democrats to pass significant changes to the social safety net. The measure includes meaningful policy shifts on climate change, education, health care, immigration and other issues.

No question some of what liberals want goes too far — why should rich kids get free community college? — but Democratic leaders and the White House have signaled a willingness to take out many of the more excessive measures.

Manchin also complained in his op-ed that Republicans used reconciliation to pass tax cuts in 2017 that benefited rich investors more than workers, while adding more than $1 trillion to the national debt. Does the senator think the GOP won’t use reconciliation again when they’re back in charge?

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Moreover, Friday’s bad jobs report shows that the economy is not overheating, as Manchin fears. The delta variant has hobbled the recovery. Economists expect September’s employment numbers to be even worse.

And contrary to Manchin’s intimations, this bill can be fully funded. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who can afford no more than three Democratic defections, says the House will only approve something that can get 50 votes in the Senate. A four-page menu of potential ways to raise revenue as part of the package has been circulating among senators.

If it’s the debt Manchin’s genuinely most concerned about, why doesn’t he reconsider his resistance to raising the corporate tax rate as part of the funding mechanism?

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In politics, speed wins. Dithering only makes passing even a compromise bill much harder because it gives critics the chance to organize opposition. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, Business Roundtable and other corporate interests are all mobilizing to derail the bill.

Pelosi aims to settle differences between House and Senate Democrats on various topline numbers by Sept. 15, so committees can then hash out specifics. She’s agreed to hold a vote the roughly $1 trillion infrastructure plan by Sept. 27. But liberals say they won’t vote for infrastructure if there’s still no deal on reconciliation.

The window for Democrats to govern is closing fast. The rule of thumb in the Capitol has always been that you govern in odd-numbered years and campaign in even-numbered ones. 2022 begins in four months.

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Failing to pass the infrastructure and reconciliation bills could paralyze the Biden presidency that’s been made to look hapless this summer by its flat-footed response to the delta variant and the calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan. Fresh Washington Post-ABC News polling shows Biden’s approval rating has dropped to 44 percent. Fifty-seven percent of independents disapprove of his performance.

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Manchin also complained about artificial deadlines in his op-ed, but when does anything get done in Washington without them? Ultimately, liberals and moderates will have to compromise, and Democrats from deep-blue states need to be sensitive to Manchin’s political plight; in November, President Donald Trump’s margin of victory was larger in West Virginia than in every other state except Wyoming. Conversely, Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — who has also said she won’t vote for a $3.5 trillion bill — owe specifics to their colleagues about their bottom lines.

Lincoln tried to get McClellan to advance against Lee. Finally, the president fired the general. “If General McClellan did not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it,” the 16th president told associates.

If Senator Manchin prevents Democrats from using their majority, Republicans will be happy to borrow it next November.