Manchin’s statement dealt a blow to an administration that had spent the best part of a year trying to restore ties with the West Virginia Democrat. It also added to frustration that the senator could never get a yes on a number of important issues.
And after bowing to the senator’s demands, only to now watch twice as he spectacularly blows up the negotiations, even Biden has expressed his astonishment. The president has told insiders that while he understands that Manchin represents a deep red state, he cannot understand why he keeps torpedoing the party’s best plans.
“Manchin is ridiculous,” said a Democrat close to the Hill leadership, who requested anonymity to describe sentiment at the highest level of the party. “He’s just a player and a bad actor.”
But even as congressional Democrats heaped criticism on Manchin — and some urged that he strip his gavel of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee — the White House resists the temptation to vent its anger publicly.
Biden backed Manchin’s new call for a package consisting of provisions to cut prescription drug costs and a two-year extension of improved Obamacare subsidies, saying he wanted it passed before the August recess.
White House staffers are sticking to a blanket policy of declining to talk about negotiations for the legislation, a policy issued earlier this year after the senator ignited an earlier version of the bill over complaints about too much the back and forth of which took place in public . And some people close to Biden are noting the times the president and senior officials in the West Wing have vowed their relationship with West Virginia’s enigmatic lawmaker.
As for Manchin himself, word has got around in the west wing that the aides must hold back their fire on any attack.
“President Biden and senior White House officials have been in regular contact with Senator Manchin, but we are not releasing details of private conversations,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement. “And we have made it clear that the President and Senator Manchin are longtime friends who share important values when it comes to advocating for middle-class families.”
The two, Bates added, “are acting in good faith with one another, and anyone who says otherwise is not speaking for the White House.”
It’s a reluctance that stems less from a desire to be nice than from an acknowledgment of political reality: the last time they threw a punch at Manchin, it backfired spectacularly and caused a months-long hiatus in negotiations over a slim plan. That being said, no matter how the government feels about the legislature, they’re going to need his vote over and over again in a 50-50 Senate.
“In any negotiation, the person who least wants it usually wins,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. “Sen. Manchin has made it clear that he can accept or leave any reconciliation bill.”
Biden agreed to Manchin’s latest request, promising to instead advance his climate and energy agenda through executive action, and the White House has told climate advocates some initial guidelines could come as early as this week, according to a person familiar with the matter.
But in a sign of the administration’s caution in triggering the fossil-fuel-friendly Manchin, the president is likely to withhold bolder executive actions — like those dealing with oil leases or the use of the remaining agencies under the Clean Air Act — until it’s clear that this is the case. A tougher drug and health subsidy law is passed and the window on climate legislation has closed.
There’s also some hope – unlikely, as they recognize – that Manchin might reconsider jettisoning the climate parts of the bill. A person close to Manchin said it’s not impossible he could.
“They should [leave some wiggle room]said this person, noting the difference between last winter’s Fox News interview, when Manchin first blew up negotiations, and the one with West Virginia radio host Hoppy Kercheval last week, in which he discussed the latest impasse . “One is, ‘Fuck it, I’m done.’ The other is, ‘I’m not leaving the table.’”
For its part, the White House is keen to get through months of difficult negotiations and sell the remnants of the reconciliation bill as a signature victory near the midterms.
The prospective package would allow Medicare to negotiate the price of certain drugs, fulfilling a long-held goal of Democratic policy. It would also temporarily stave off sudden increases in health insurance premiums for millions — a prospect that had alarmed vulnerable Democrats because customers were due to receive notices of those increases in the weeks leading up to the November election.
Without the larger legislative packages dangling from Democrats over the past year, the shrunken law would be viewed more as a historic achievement than a consolation prize, Biden allies argued.
“If you can help people with prescription drugs, drugs that cost two to three times less for the same pill in other countries; If you can help a 60-year-old couple with an income of $45,000 not have to pay another $1,900 to get their insurance coverage, you meet the president’s goals,” White House Economic Adviser Jared Bernstein said Monday .
Still, signs of irritation have emerged. When asked Friday whether Manchin acted in good faith, Biden said only that he “did not negotiate with Joe Manchin. I have no idea.”
A spokesman for Manchin said the senator had “the utmost respect for President Biden and has made it clear repeatedly that he has not backed down from negotiations.”
Even after Manchin signaled his willingness to resume negotiations earlier this year, Biden has stayed away from personal involvement. While the White House stayed abreast of the talks, senior advisers left it to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to chart a new path forward with Manchin. As for the White House Legislative Affairs business, the person close to Manchin described the senator’s relationship with him as “nonexistent.”
The timing of the deal’s death knell also caused a stir. In December, Manchin went to Fox News to scrap the president’s agenda, a deliberate choice of venue that provoked anger in the West Wing.
Last week, news of Manchin’s reluctance broke while Biden was abroad, with the senator’s intentions made public when the president held politically sensitive meetings in Saudi Arabia over oil. Some Democrats felt the move served to underscore the difficulties Biden was having in meeting his commitments on a number of progressive priorities, including climate change.
But Manchin’s allies pushed back on the proposal, noting that he did not leak the news or withdraw from negotiations, but urged them to be suspended to gauge the latest inflationary trends. An administration official also downplayed the importance of timing.
Unlike last December, when Manchin reached out to Conservative cable to call off negotiations on the previous $1.5 trillion package for good, he insisted he was still interested in talks.
But time is running out on the legislative calendar, and Democrats on Capitol Hill, who have contained their frustration for months, are now accusing him of derailing Biden’s agenda and misleading the party.
“I think I lost faith when I saw that he wasn’t telling the truth to the president,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a key player in last year’s decision, one of Manchin favored bipartisan infrastructure bill on the condition that he and Biden draft a separate reconciliation bill. “If you don’t tell the President the truth, you cannot be considered a good, honest negotiator.”
The Democrats have also reserved part of their criticism for Biden in recent days. They argued that the kid gloves being used to deal with Manchin is just the latest example of the White House believing it can flatter and flatter its way to legislative victories – only to find the Senate more deadlocked is than ever before.
“My personal opinion is that in many ways the White House assumed the Senate functioned the way it did when Joe Biden was there,” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said. “And that’s a very naive and wrong perspective.”
Anthony Adragna, Sarah Ferris and Sam Stein contributed to this report.