Sen. Joe Manchin, the most pivotal Democratic swing vote in the Senate, threw a major wrench in his party's carefully crafted plans to pass a massive $3.5 trillion bill by month's end, demanding they take a "strategic pause" before considering a sweeping bill to implement much of President Joe Biden's agenda.
Manchin, who has long been skeptical of the staggering price tag, made clear Thursday that he's also opposed to the timeframe Democratic leaders had been charting out for months, a position that now threatens both the larger Democratic-only proposal but also the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that passed the Senate earlier this summer.
In a strongly worded op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, the moderate senator called on fellow Democrats to "hit a strategic pause on the budget-reconciliation legislation," referring to the bill that can be approved in the Senate by just a simple majority -- meaning all 50 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus have to support the bill or it will collapse since all 50 Republicans are expected to oppose it.
Manchin upends Democrats' push to enact Biden's agenda this month, calling for 'pause' on $3.5 trillion bill
"Instead of rushing to spend trillions on new government programs and additional stimulus funding, Congress should hit a strategic pause on the budget-reconciliation legislation," he wrote in the op-ed. "A pause is warranted because it will provide more clarity on the trajectory of the pandemic, and it will allow us to determine whether inflation is transitory or not."
He added: "While some have suggested this reconciliation legislation must be passed now believe that making budgetary decisions under artificial political deadlines never leads to good policy or sound decisions. I have always said if I can't explain it, I can't vote for it, and I can't explain why my Democratic colleagues are rushing to spend $3.5 trillion."
House and Senate Democrats had been hoping to finalize their deals behind closed doors over the reconciliation bill -- and push through the proposal in each chamber before the end of the month. Now, Manchin's position throws that into question.
Democratic leaders have set September 15 for a deadline to put together their reconciliation bill, and have begun taking action on their individual pieces of the larger proposal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has warned her colleagues she will not move on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill -- which was approved 69-30 in the Senate last month -- until the Senate passes the larger Democratic deal first.
But Pelosi was forced to make a deal with her moderate Democratic members last month to assure them that the Senate's infrastructure bill would come to the House floor by September 27. Many House liberals have warned that they won't support the bipartisan infrastructure bill unless the Senate first approves the Democrat-only reconciliation proposal.
The massive bill would include measures such as funding to combat climate change, paid family and medical leave, expanding the child tax credit -- and would be funded in part through tax hikes on corporations and high-income earners.
"Manchin has weekly huddles w/ Exxon & is one of many senators who gives lobbyists their pen to write so-called 'bipartisan' fossil fuel bills. It's killing people. Our people. At least 12 last night. Sick of this 'bipartisan' corruption that masquerades as clear-eyed moderation," she tweeted Thursday.
And the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Pramila Jayapal responded to Manchin in a tweet: "Pause on finally delivering child care, paid leave, education, health care, affordable housing, climate action, and dental, vision, and hearing to millions of families across America? Absolutely not."
"Proceedings in the US House will have no impact on Kyrsten's views about what is best for our country — including the fact that she will not support a budget reconciliation bill that costs $3.5 trillion," her spokesperson John LaBombard told CNN last month. Her office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Supreme Court and Joe Manchin tighten Biden's political straitjacket
Both the premise and promise of Joe Biden's presidency and a possibly brief Democratic grip on Washington are suddenly on the line, as the legacy of past electoral disappointments and harsh realities of power suddenly converge.
In the seven-month span of Biden's term, this is the worst of times for Democrats. A stroke-of-midnight eclipse of Constitutional abortion rights in Texas that shocked liberals, a new threat from moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin to Biden's vast congressional agenda and the President's own stumbles in Afghanistan dragged this White House to its lowest moment yet.
Add in the Republican Party's expanding assault on voting rights and a looming fight over raising government borrowing levels, and Democrats face a struggle to repay the faith of their 2020 voters. And that's without horrendous tests from a pandemic that is again filling hospitals, targeting unvaccinated Americans -- including, increasingly, kids who have been left waiting on regulators -- and looking likely to dog the White House deep into midterm election year.
Each of these crises is putting Biden's leadership under extreme examination and in several cases exposing his inability to meaningfully shift prevailing dynamics because of divides in his own party and Republicans' obstructive power.
The President has issued stirring and even angry demands for action on voting rights and abortion rights. But a 50-50 Senate and a new conservative Supreme Court majority severely limit his options -- unless he is prepared to embrace the political earthquakes of abolishing Senate filibuster obstruction rules and enlarging the nation's top bench, which he has neither the political majorities nor personal inclination to do, to the fury of progressives.
The challenges facing Biden also highlight a more over-arching question about his governing philosophy. How can a President dedicated to restoring and using traditional Washington methods to pass a massive program do so when confronted by a Republican Party that has already shown itself ready to shred regular order to gain and regain power?
From triumph to potential disaster
The new difficulties follow a head-spinning three weeks that actually started in triumph when Biden succeeded in shepherding a bipartisan infrastructure bill and $3.5 trillion spending blueprint through the Senate. But the sequence of subsequent dramas has stretched the White House, exposed the limits of the Democrats' thin majorities and -- in the case of the chaotic withdrawal from Kabul -- displayed the capacity of outside events to destabilize presidencies at any moment.
It's one thing for the progressive wing of the party to demand sweeping presidential action to enforce their priorities immediately. But the Democratic Party is hardly an ideological monolith. Its congressional leadership, who must be conscious of the moderate lane Biden traveled to the White House, appears to have neither the internal unity or stomach to flex power ruthlessly in the manner of rule-breaking Republicans on the filibuster and the high court.
And the cumulative power of conservatism built up over years, even with Republicans currently locked out of power in Washington, is showing itself to be a formidable political force. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a master of obstruction, deploys the filibuster with aplomb and enjoys heaping pressure on moderate Democrats, every one of whose votes the President needs. And the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, by refusing to block a near-total Texas abortion ban, drove home its power to destroy liberal dreams not just now, but for years to come.
Trauma over abortion decision
Apart perhaps from the shock victory of Donald Trump on election night in 2016, the Texas abortion law -- which bars abortion after as early as six weeks into the pregnancy and contains no exceptions for rape or incest -- may be the most traumatic moment for liberals in many years.
It was obvious the new Supreme Court conservative majority was gunning for Roe v. Wade. But the manner in which the justices acquiesced in the effective stripping of Constitutional rights of women in Texas in a 5-4 decision, which included no hearings or detailed arguments, was staggering. As was the fact that the Texas law, which allows anyone in the US to sue a person -- doctor, family member or Uber driver, for example, who helps someone else get an abortion -- appears to introduce a form of vigilante justice with grave implications for other constitutional rights. For decades, the threat to abortion was expected to come in a frontal assault on the 1973 Roe decision.
Biden reacted to the Supreme Court's decision with a strongly worded statement and instructed his administration to examine what options there are to guarantee a woman's right to choose in Texas. The President decried "an unprecedented assault on a woman's constitutional rights." Vice President Kamala Harris promised the ruling was not the "last word" on Roe v. Wade.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department was "deeply concerned" about the Texas abortion law. Garland's statement was especially ironic since had McConnell not twisted convention to deny him a Supreme Court seat in President Barack Obama's last year in office, the entire outcome of the Texas abortion episode may have been reversed.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi vowed to bring up a measure guaranteeing equal access to abortion as soon as the chamber returns from recess next week. She said the Texas law is "the most extreme, dangerous abortion ban in half a century, and its purpose is to destroy Roe v. Wade."
But there are nowhere near the 60 votes needed in the Senate to pass such a major piece of legislation that almost all Republicans would oppose. To overcome that barrier, Democrats would have to vote by a simple majority to change the filibuster. But Manchin, several other Democratic senators and even Biden himself have balked at such a step, partly due to fears about how a future unfettered Republican Senate and White House could swiftly remake America -- perhaps in the image of anti-abortion, pro-gun Texas.
Another option backed by many progressives during last year's election campaign was a scheme to simply expand the Supreme Court to counter what Democrats see as at least two illicit Republican appointments.
Biden, a Washington institutionalist, whose entire political project relies on forging national unity through bipartisan measures like his infrastructure bill, has shown little interest in such a step that would ignite a political firestorm. Biden did form a commission to advise him on court reform. But it was widely seen as a way of side-stepping demands by the Democratic left for court packing.
Ultimately, the Texas abortion law and the Supreme Court's refusal to stop it reflect the hangover from what seems to become a more disastrous election for Democrats in 2016 with every year that passes. Hillary Clinton's defeat paved the way for Trump to seat three new justices -- Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett -- and the Texas abortion law is just the start.
Every vote counts
The Democrats' underperformance in another election, the 2020 congressional contests, are behind their other big political problem this week. Only two runoff victories in Georgia allowed Democrats to take control of the Senate in a disappointing showing since Biden did far better in unseating Trump. The resulting 50-50 majority in the Senate means that every single vote is needed to pass anything by a simple majority. Biden cannot lose even one Democrat.
So Manchin's new warning that he is not just uncomfortable with the size of the $3.5 trillion dollar spending package but also the concept and the idea of passing it at the current moment threatened real trouble for Biden's domestic legacy.
"Instead of rushing to spend trillions on new government programs and additional stimulus funding, Congress should hit a strategic pause on the budget-reconciliation legislation," Manchin wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
Biden's legislative skills mean it's far too early to assume he will not be able to talk Manchin around. There have been other moments when the legislation's prospects have seemed dark. And most bills have near death moments before they pass.
But the complex choreography needed for this particular measure leaves it especially vulnerable. And it's also fair to ask how low Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders and House progressives are willing to go on the size of the final package and on its timing.
Not very far, if key House progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is to be believed.
"Maybe we hit the 'cancel' button on this so-called 'bipartisan' charade of an Exxon lobbyist drafted infrastructure bill unless we actually pass a law that helps people's lives with healthcare expansion, childcare, climate action, etc," Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter.
Manchin's doubts do not just endanger a single Democratic priority. The spending blueprint is a monster that pretty much includes all of Biden's top priorities in a measure that can evade the filibuster and pass with a limited device known as reconciliation.
But if Democrats can't get Manchin on board it is doomed. And this is also about more than one bill. The spending bill is part of a delicate dance designed to convince progressives like Ocasio-Cortez to back the bipartisan infrastructure measure that she mentioned. That proposed law would be a landmark of the Biden presidency but falls far short of the hopes of more liberal members.
Biden launches federal effort to respond to Texas law as he faces pressure to protect abortion
The absence of the word in Biden's public remarks and statements has frustrated activists, who say it reflects an issue that fell off the priority list even as women's right to an abortion comes under threat in states across the Midwest and South.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday night formally denied a request from Texas abortion providers to freeze the state law, meaning it will remain on the books for now. Abortion providers in the state have already turned away patients, uncertain of their potential legal exposure.
In far stronger language than he'd employed a day earlier, Biden called the law's novel enforcement structure -- which allows private citizens to bring civil suits against anyone who assists a pregnant person seeking an abortion -- a "bizarre scheme" with the potential to unleash "unconstitutional chaos."
Biden said he was launching a "whole of government" effort to respond to the law, tasking the Department of Health and Human Services and the Justice Department "to see what steps the Federal Government can take to ensure that women in Texas have access to safe and legal abortions." He said the effort would be led from within the White House.
As the Texas law that prohibits abortions after six weeks takes effect, Biden is facing pressure to defend abortion rights more aggressively. It's an issue the President has shifted on over the course of his long career, including as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, when he reversed his stance on a measure allowing federal funds to pay for abortion.
"That is a specific course of action that can be taken to help protect from these type of lawsuits in the future," she said.
The prospect of Congress enshrining a right to abortion in law remains a long shot; doing so would require 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a certain Republican filibuster, and even passage in the House is unclear given Democrats' narrowest of majorities.
Biden had already faced calls to support changes to filibuster rules for issues like voting rights but has stopped short of supporting getting rid of the filibuster altogether. In 2018, Democrats successfully used the filibuster to prevent a law banning abortion after 20 weeks when Republicans controlled the House, Senate and White House -- a reminder of how changes to the rules could haunt them down the road if the GOP returns to the majority.
Since taking office, Biden has taken some steps to reverse restrictive abortion rules from the Trump era, including the "Mexico City Policy" banning US funding of international organizations that perform abortions. He also tasked the Department of Health and Human Services to replace a Trump-era rule barring certain federally funded health care providers from referring patients for abortions, a step long demanded by abortion rights groups.
Yet the issue has been far from a driving agenda item for his administration. As a senator, Biden had been among the more moderate Democrats on abortion, including supporting the Hyde Amendment that banned federal abortion funding.
In 2019, as he was vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, Biden said he'd changed his mind, even as he declared he made "no apologies for my last position." Instead, he said he'd reversed his position because largely Republican-led states had enacted strict new abortion laws.
Biden, a Catholic, has also faced criticism from conservative US bishops, who earlier this year sought to enact rules that would deny communion to public figures who support abortion rights.
Biden has shrugged off those attempts, calling it a "private matter" that he did not think would gain traction.
For Biden and his party, the political environment has been deteriorating for weeks. The resurgence of coronavirus infections, rising fears of inflation, and catastrophic images from Afghanistan have pulled down the President's public standing and brightened Republican prospects for regaining control of Congress in the 2022 midterm elections.
The restrictive Texas abortion law, and the Supreme Court's willingness to let it take effect, could alter the political equation in Democrats' favor, some operatives said.
"Democrats will use this to gin up their disillusioned base," said Republican pollster Glen Bolger.
"It's a policy disaster but a political bonanza," observed Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who advises party leaders in Congress. "Democrats will finally realize the right to choose is not a settled issue but rather, actually at stake in these elections. They will be fired up, and ready to vote, and anxious to give of their time and money."
As the issue returns to the fore with Texas's new law, Biden is facing renewed calls to endorse an expansion of the Supreme Court after it allowed Texas's restrictive new abortion law to take effect. Biden as a candidate punted on the question, and instead established a commission of experts to weigh that and other ideas for reforming the Supreme Court.
The panel has met three times since it was established in April -- once each in May, June and July. The meetings have occurred virtually, and mostly entail the members and witnesses reading from prepared testimony. They are all available on the White House website.
More meetings are scheduled in the fall, and a report is due by November 15, which is 180 days since the panel's first public meeting.
Officials say the report will not contain recommendations for or against expanding the court or other potential changes. Instead, it will analyze various arguments for and against Supreme Court reform. Officials say it could inform further debate among lawmakers.
Aside from court expansion, the panel has heard arguments over limiting the court's power of judicial review; changing how the court decides which cases to hear; and debated the idea of term limits for justices.
The panel has also engaged on the so-called "shadow docket," which allows the court to make decisions without full public arguments or briefings -- a practice that has come under new scrutiny following the use of the tactic in the Texas case.
In his statement Thursday, Biden also criticized the court for deciding in secret something with major ramifications.
"For the majority to do this without a hearing, without the benefit of an opinion from a court below, and without due consideration of the issues, insults the rule of law and the rights of all Americans to seek redress from our courts," Biden wrote. "Rather than use its supreme authority to ensure justice could be fairly sought, the highest Court of our land will allow millions of women in Texas in need of critical reproductive care to suffer while courts sift through procedural complexities."
The Supreme Court commission, led by former White House counsel Bob Bauer, was established in April and is comprised of 36 members across an ideological spectrum. Most are professors at elite law schools.