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Facing Voting Rights Doom, Joe Biden Is Still Trying to Eke Out a Win

Late last year, as talks around the Build Back Better bill collapsed, Democrats turned their attention to voting rights, seeking to push back against GOP attacks on the election process with the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. But now that those two bills are also on the cusp of failure, thanks to a rejected Senate filibuster change, Democrats appear to be preparing to pivot back to their social spending plan. It’ll have to be scaled back to even have a chance of getting approved by Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, the two Democrats who put the kibosh on the legislation the last time around. But the hope, both for the White House and vulnerable Democratic lawmakers, is to salvage at least some of Joe Biden’s social and climate agenda, even if it means sacrificing certain key provisions.

In an effort to resurrect Build Back Better, the White House is writing a new version that would preserve Biden’s climate initiatives but pull back on measures like the child tax credit and paid family leave, according to Reuters. (The White House has disputed Reuters’ reporting, calling it “off-base.”)

“There needs to be a reset,” a person working on the revised plan told Reuters. “There’s not a lot of mystery anymore about what Manchin would accept. We need to recalibrate as much as possible to what he can accept, and then there needs to be a personal ask for his vote.”

Build Back Better was one of two major domestic bills Biden attempted to pass last year. One, a traditional infrastructure package, passed in November, with some Republican support. BBB, a “human” infrastructure bill, was a priority among progressives but was opposed by the GOP and by Manchin, who said in December that the legislation would “dramatically reshape our society” and vowed not to vote for it, citing the price tag of the package. “I have always said, ‘If I can’t go back home and explain it, I can’t vote for it,’” Manchin said in a statement last month. “Despite my best efforts, I cannot explain the sweeping Build Back Better Act in West Virginia and I cannot move forward on this mammoth piece of legislation.”

That effectively killed the bill — and broke down talks with Biden, who had spent months attempting to get Manchin and Sinema on board. A version with concessions could disappoint progressives, who had called for the infrastructure bills to be passed simultaneously to prevent this precise scenario, and to the Americans who would benefit from these programs. But it could allow Biden to enact some of his agenda — and give the Democrats a needed political win ahead of this year’s midterms.

The thing is, it’s not clear there’s any compromise that can satisfy Manchin; so far, he’s responded to every concession from the White House by asking for more. The administration can scale back the benefits Manchin regards as overly generous. It could also water down the climate provisions he sees as threatening to America’s energy system, particularly in his home state of West Virginia, where he has a major financial stake in the coal industry. But it’s not clear there’s anything that will sway Manchin while retaining the substance of the legislation. 

That grim prospect has vulnerable Democrats, running tough re-election battles with limited recent successes to tout, pushing for the bill to be broken up and for its popular provisions to be voted on separately. “What I don’t want to do is have the Democratic caucus just beat their heads against the wall for months,” said Pennsylvania Representative Susan Wild, who narrowly held her seat in 2020, according to the Washington Post. “We need a timeline here… If there is still hope for Manchin to agree, we need to figure out when that’s going to be and what we are doing if he doesn’t meet that deadline because in the past, he hasn’t. What’s our next plan?”

Democratic leaders, however, don’t yet seem willing to abandon hopes of passing the provisions together in what would be a landmark bill. “I still believe we’re gonna find a core of this bill, whatever we call it,” Senator Tim Kaine told Margaret Brennan CBS News’ Face the Nation on Sunday. “We’re going to find a core of the bill and pass it.” Whether they revise the bill, rewrite it, or strip it for parts, they’re going to have to act soon: If midterm forecasts hold, it could be their last chance for a while.

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