Choose Your Own Adventure
How does it end? Only Joe can say.
In early June of 2021, a far away time and place where the American Rescue Plan had Democrats walking with a spring in their step and BBB had yet to begin its tortured life cycle, a reporter from McClatchy inquired about the state of the Biden agenda, which had recently been complicated by one particular Senator's policy and procedural whims.
My response: “We’re all trapped in this choose-your-own-adventure book where Joe Manchin is the narrator, and he’s the only one who knows how this ends."
A year later this framing remains more true than ever.
The pre-Memorial Day work period, a five week span that represented the longest continuous legislative stretch before the midterm election, has now come and gone with little public progress, certainly not the consummated framework supporters might have hoped for. The profound lack of new information has sent the Beltway scrambling over whatever scraps might surface at any given moment--this week's spark was a comment by Manchin himself at Davos, where he indicated an "opportunity and a responsibility" for Congress to deal with inflation, drug prices and energy; and an unattributed outline of a potential reconciliation deal (its provenance ultimately linked to a downtown think tank,) which largely mirrors the known contours of what Manchin would conceivably tolerate: a 2-1 ratio of revenues to outlays, with half going toward deficit reduction, and the balance being put toward clean energy tax incentives, health policy reforms, and perhaps some attenuated version of other BBB programs.
Despite these fire drills, nothing has fundamentally changed except the growing sense of urgency, both among stakeholders and Democratic leaders. The only thing we can say with complete certainty is that Manchin and majority leader Chuck Schumer are still talking, while Manchin continues to indulge bipartisan energy talks with some degree of overlap. Indeed he seems to be leveraging one against the other, mindful that a partisan deal with big tax hikes is his "ace in the hole" with his GOP counterparts.
But with no white smoke seemingly imminent from the ongoing reconciliation conclave between Manchin and Schumer, all Democrats can do for now is build more road: Memorial Day may come and go, but perhaps by the time they return from recess there will be an announcement of a negotiating breakthrough. (And if not, the practical deadline for movement is August recess anyway--plenty of time, right?)
In fact, the reason Memorial Day is an important benchmark for anyone capable of reading a calendar is the fleeting nature of the summer legislative session. Once May is in the rear view, just two work periods remain, with three weeks each slated for legislative business in the months of June and July, respectively. And while committee staff has been attending to the underlying spadework all along, turning any sort of framework into Byrd-proof legislative text takes significant time, to say nothing of the procedural hoops that abound on the Senate floor.
Despite the ticking clock, a sizable deal remains a distinct possibility--though its fate, as ever, comes down to Manchin's desire to get to yes. In an otherwise positive interview with Axios late this week, the most explicit indicator of the Senator's seriousness, he conspicuously hedged as to what these "preliminary" discussions might yield: "There could be nothing... There could be truly nothing. That’s all I can tell you.”
The rhetorical cul de sac sends us back to where we started. It's Manchin's world, and we're just living in it.
[This is an excerpt from the May 27 PRG weekly reconciliation update. Read the rest of my firm’s reconciliation updates here. And if you like my “Bottom Line” analysis, check out my moderated discussion with my colleague Yasmin Nelson, who pens “The Breakdown” newsletter. Watch on Youtube or listen wherever you get your podcast.]