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Biden's infrastructure plan confronts a familiar hurdle: Sen. Joe Manchin

FILE - In this Feb. 25, 2021, file photo, reporters question Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., as he arrives for votes on President Joe Biden's cabinet nominees, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 25, 2021, file photo, reporters question Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., as he arrives for votes on President Joe Biden's cabinet nominees, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
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Sen. Joe Manchin delivered a direct blow to Democrats’ hopes of advancing President Joe Biden’s agenda by changing or bending Senate rules Wednesday, but the West Virginia lawmaker appeared to leave the door open to passing a version of Biden’s ambitious infrastructure plan, with or without Republican support.

In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Manchin outright rejected calls from the left to end the legislative filibuster, which would allow Democrats to pass any bills with 50 votes. He also expressed concerns about signals his party might be willing to rely more often on reconciliation—a process that enables budget-related measures to pass with a simple majority—to sidestep the filibuster.

“There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster,” Manchin said. “The time has come to end these political games, and to usher a new era of bipartisanship where we find common ground on the major policy debates facing our nation.”

Manchin’s position is not new, but he reasserted it at a moment when fellow Democrats are weighing options to pass Biden’s $2.25 trillion American Jobs Plan, a massive package that would fund investments in infrastructure, green energy, manufacturing, and elder care by raising taxes on corporations. As proposed, the bill has little chance of securing the 10 Republican votes necessary to overcome a filibuster.

The Senate can typically pass one reconciliation bill per fiscal year, and both parties have used it aggressively in recent years to approve major pieces of legislation, including Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan last month. The Senate parliamentarian issued a ruling earlier this week that reconciliation “may” be allowed more frequently.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., celebrated that decision, but much was left unresolved about how often reconciliation could be used, what types of bills could be considered, and whether a revised 2021 budget resolution could serve as a vehicle for an infrastructure package. A spokesman for Schumer said Monday no decisions had been made about how to proceed and details still needed to be worked out.

Whatever Schumer decides, he will need to satisfy Manchin, who has quickly become one of the most influential figures in an evenly divided Senate, despite representing one of the nation’s smallest states. He is also among the chamber’s leading advocates for at least trying to find bipartisan solutions before the majority charges ahead unilaterally.

“When the Democrats need unanimity, it gives one senator who’s willing to risk upending legislation an incredible amount of power, and it’s an amount of power that, if exercised too much, runs the risk of igniting greater turmoil within the Democratic Party,” said Glenn Altschuler, a professor of American studies at Cornell University.

Manchin made clear Wednesday he would not support allowing the arcane reconciliation process to replace “regular order” to pass legislation. What is less clear is how comfortable he is with using it once more this year to approve a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure bill.

The senator previously said he would favor an “enormous” infrastructure investment funded by raising corporate taxes, but he announced earlier this week he would not support increasing the corporate rate above 25%. He has also encouraged negotiations with Republicans, many of whom are reticent to hike corporate taxes at all.

“Senate Democrats must avoid the temptation to abandon our Republican colleagues on important national issues,” Manchin wrote Wednesday. “Republicans, however, have a responsibility to stop saying no, and participate in finding real compromise with Democrats.”

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a top Biden ally, told Punchbowl News the president would likely give Republicans until Memorial Day to negotiate an acceptable deal on infrastructure. Coons said senior Republicans indicated an agreement is possible on a narrower package partially funded by a gasoline tax increase.

The White House maintains Biden’s infrastructure agenda is flexible and he will meet with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to discuss it next week, but talks with Republicans on the American Rescue Plan faltered because he deemed their counterproposal inadequate. Finding common ground might not be any easier this time.

“We’ll be open to good ideas and good-faith negotiations,” Biden said Wednesday. “But here’s what we won’t be open to: We will not be open to doing nothing. Inaction simply is not an option.”

Manchin’s affirmation of his opposition to changing the rules to push through Democratic priorities won him praise from some on the right. Fox Business host Stuart Varney applauded the West Virginia senator for standing up to “Bernie Sanders and the woke brigade.”

“We thank Sen. Manchin for remaining firmly committed to the filibuster in the face of enormous pressure from leaders of his party,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group that is running ads in West Virginia urging constituents to call Manchin and “tell him to keep protecting life” by defending the filibuster.

The reaction from the left, where frustrations with Manchin have been mounting for months, was less enthusiastic. Some fear his insistence on regular order will undercut Biden’s policies on taxes, guns, immigration, voting rights, and climate change and put Democratic control of Congress at risk in the midterm elections.

“Manchin is setting himself up to be Mr. Gridlock,” tweeted Adam Jentleson, executive director of the Battle Born Collective, a progressive organization that advocates eliminating the filibuster. “He's putting himself on the hook to deliver 10 GOP votes on everything. When he fails, as he will, he'll be the one blocking broadly popular policies that improve people's lives & which Dems must pass to hold the majority in 2022.”

Manchin flexed his muscles as Democrats’ perennial deciding vote in the Senate to sink the nomination of Neera Tanden to head the Office of Management and Budget and to force last-minute changes to certain provisions in Biden’s relief bill. However, he eventually backed all of Biden’s other top nominees and he accepted most of the spending the White House sought in the American Rescue Plan.

Experts expect a similar outcome here, with Manchin demanding significant changes but ultimately backing a version of the American Jobs Plan that is somewhat smaller and raises taxes less than Biden envisioned, even if no Republicans go along with it.

“I hope that progressives understand that this is what Congress always does – negotiate and trade,” said Robert Mann, a former Senate press secretary and author of “Becoming Ronald Reagan: The Rise of a Conservative Icon.” “It’s part of the process of getting legislation passed.”

Notably, Manchin is not alone in his misgivings about the American Jobs Plan or the procedural maneuvers his colleagues are considering. At least one other Senate Democrat and several House members have publicly called for changes to the infrastructure proposal, and Manchin claims seven or eight Senate Democrats privately agree Biden’s proposed 28% corporate tax rate would be too high.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., also shares Manchin’s resistance to eliminating or weakening the filibuster. She has been even less willing than him to entertain hypothetical reforms like reviving the talking filibuster, insisting instead senators must find a path to compromise.

“When you have a place that’s broken and not working, and many would say that’s the Senate today, I don’t think the solution is to erode the rules,” Sinema told The Wall Street Journal this week. “I think the solution is for senators to change their behavior and begin to work together, which is what the country wants us to do.”

In a Morning Consult/Politico survey released Wednesday, a 45% plurality of voters backed eliminating the legislative filibuster, including 62% of Democrats. One-third of Democrats believe changing the rule should be a “top priority,” a 12-point increase since before Biden took office in January.

Many progressives agree the Senate is broken, but they doubt moderates like Manchin and Sinema can fix it by reaching across the aisle in the current polarized environment. Infrastructure spending, immigration reform, and voting rights have drawn bipartisan support in the past, but Democrats are skeptical there are 10 Republican votes for anything Biden wants to do.

“If [Manchin] wants to play Prime Minister, show us the version of the legislation that gets 60 votes, and then go get them,” said Jon Favreau, a former Obama speechwriter and co-host of “Pod Save America,” on Twitter.

Experts say the last several years have provided few examples of the minority’s ability to filibuster fostering bipartisan cooperation on productive legislation, and the current Congress is not shaping up to be any different.

“There is a world of difference between observing that the Senate is broken, that it’s polarized, that a compromise on legislation has not happened for many, many years, and doing something about it,” Altschuler said.

As a Democrat representing a state President Biden lost by 39 points in 2020, Manchin has little incentive to bow to the left and little to fear from progressive threats of a primary challenge. It is uncertain if Manchin, 74, even intends to run again when his term ends in 2024, so he has enormous freedom to resist political pressure and buck the base.

Manchin’s stance on Senate rules might not doom the American Jobs Plan or another big spending bill in fiscal year 2022, but it spells trouble for many of Democrats’ other legislative goals. Current parliamentary rules limit options for using reconciliation to raise the minimum wage, expand voting rights, change immigration policies, or stiffen gun control laws.

If the West Virginia senator refuses to waver on changing those rules, President Biden will either have to severely curtail his ambitions, resort to executive action, or stand down on some campaign promises. Manchin seems to recognize how much leverage that affords him, but partisan dynamics on both sides could limit how much he is able to accomplish as a result.

“There’s no evidence that the Republicans are serious about a negotiation that would end in a bill agreeable to the Democratic Party,” Altschuler said.

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