By LISA MASCARO and FARNOUSH AMIRI
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden appeared determined Tuesday to return to the negotiating table with Sen. Joe Manchin, the holdout Democrat who effectively tanked the party’s signature $2 trillion domestic policy initiative with his own jarring year-end announcement.
Biden, responding to reporters’ questions at the White House, joked that he holds no grudges against the conservative West Virginia senator whose rejection of the social services and climate change bill stunned Washington just days ago.
Instead, the president spoke passionately about the families that would benefit from the Democrats’ ambitious, if now highly uncertain, plan to pour billions of dollars into child care, health care and other services.
“Sen. Manchin and I are going to get something done,” Biden said.
The president’s off-the-cuff remarks constitute his first public statement as Democrats struggle to pick up the pieces from Manchin’s Sunday announcement that he would not support the bill, as is. Manchin essentially crushed Biden’s sweeping policy measure in the 50-50 Senate, siding with all Republicans who oppose the bill.
Biden spoke of the “dignity of a parent” trying to pay the bills, and the assistance millions could receive from the federal government with the legislation.
But the Democrats face serious questions over whether the $2 trillion initiative can be refashioned to win his crucial vote or the party will be saddled with a devastating defeat.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was set to assemble Senate Democrats later Tuesday for a private virtual caucus meeting to discuss next steps.
Schumer vowed on Monday that the chamber would vote early in the new year on Biden’s “Build Back Better Act” as it now stands so every senator “has the opportunity to make their position known on the Senate floor, not just on television.” That was a biting reference to Manchin’s sudden TV announcement against the bill on Sunday.
But Manchin and his party are so far apart, his relationships so bruised after months of failed talks, it’s unclear how they even get back to the negotiating table, let alone revive the sprawling more than 2,100-page social services and climate change bill.
Biden and Manchin spoke later Sunday, according to a person familiar with the call, first reported by Politico. It was cordial and respectful, said the person who spoke only on condition of anonymity.
“We’re going to work like hell to get it done,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki, repeating the phrase several times at a Monday briefing but never saying how.
The setback has thrown Biden’s signature legislative effort into deep doubt at a critical time, closing out the end of the president’s first year and ahead of congressional midterm elections when the Democrats’ slim hold on Congress is at risk.
Coupled with solid Republican opposition, Manchin’s vote is vital on this and other initiatives, including the Democrats’ priority voting rights legislation that Schumer also promised would come to an early vote.
From the White House, Psaki struck a more conciliatory tone than her weekend hardball reaction to Manchin, saying Biden is a “longtime friend” of the senator and the president is focused on moving forward.
Steeped in the politics of a state that Biden lost decisively to Donald Trump, Manchin has little to gain from aligning too closely with fellow Democrats, raising fresh questions over whether he still has a place in the party.
In a radio interview Monday, he reiterated his position that the social and environment bill has far too much government spending — on child care, health care and other programs — without enough restrictions on incomes or work requirements.
But the lifelong Democrat was less clear when asked if the party still has room for him — describing himself as “fiscally responsible and socially compassionate.”
Manchin said: “Now, if there’s no Democrats like that then they have to push me wherever they want.”
After months of negotiations with the White House and Senate staff members as well as Biden and fellow senators, he lashed out at hard-line tactics against him by those he said “just beat the living crap out of people and think they’ll be submissive.”
The next steps remain highly uncertain for the president and his party. Lawmakers assessed their options with Congress on recess for the holiday break. The president’s reputation as a seasoned legislator who wants to show the country government can work hangs in the balance along with his proposals.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., a leader of the progressive caucus, spoke with Manchin early Monday, but emerged warning her colleagues the senator was an untrustworthy partner who “went back on his word.”
Jayapal said Democrats were working with the White House on alternative means of reaching the bill’s goals through executive or administrative actions, without legislation.
The White House appeared to take interest in Manchin’s preference for a reimagined bill that would tackle a few top priorities, for longer duration, rather than the multifaceted and far-reaching House-passed version.
But it will be extraordinarily difficult for progressive and centrist Democrats to rebuild trust to launch a fresh round of negotiations having devoted much of Biden’s first year in office to what is now essentially a collapsed effort.
The sweeping package is among the biggest of its kind ever considered in Congress, unleashing billions of dollars to help American families nationwide — nearly all paid for with higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy.
For families with children, it would provide free pre-school and child care aid. There are subsidies for health insurance premiums, lower prescription drug costs and expanded Medicaid access in states that do not yet provide it. The bill would start a new hearing aid program for seniors. And it includes more than $500 billion to curb carbon emissions, a figure considered the largest federal expenditure ever to combat climate change.
A potential new deadline for Biden and his party comes with the expiration of an expanded child tax credit that has been sending up to $300 monthly directly to millions of families’ bank accounts. If Congress fails to act, the money won’t arrive in January.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi struck an optimistic chord at an event Monday in her San Francisco district. “This will happen,” she said. “I’m not deterred at all.”
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Colleen Long contributed to this report.
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