Democrats Try to Build Back (A Bit) Better

President Joe Biden’s economic agenda might be back from the dead. If the original proposal was Build Back Better, this is more like Build Back a Bit.

Democrats this week took the first formal step toward reviving a stripped-down version of the nearly $2 trillion plan that Senator Joe Manchin killed late last year. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer asked the Senate parliamentarian to review a proposed agreement that aims to reduce the cost of prescription drugs by allowing Medicare to negotiate prices directly—a long-sought Democratic priority that Manchin supports. That is one major component of a deal Schumer and Manchin have been discussing that would include hundreds of billions of dollars to combat climate change along with deficit-slashing tax increases on the wealthy.

The deal could be ready for votes on the Senate floor by the end of this month, according to a Democrat familiar with the talks who described the development as “major progress” toward enacting a chunk of Biden’s program before the midterm elections. Caveats abound: Schumer and Manchin have yet to complete either the tax or the climate portions of the bill, and the West Virginia centrist has abandoned negotiations before. With no Republican support, Democrats need the parliamentarian to determine whether their proposal can qualify for the process known as budget reconciliation, which would circumvent an expected filibuster and allow a bill to pass with a simple majority vote. A second Democratic aide, who like the first spoke anonymously to describe the delicate discussions, told me that a final deal would “probably take several weeks” and characterized the hopes for a vote before Congress breaks for its August recess as “ambitious.”

[Read: It’s not just Manchin]

Yet the fact that the Schumer-Manchin talks have advanced even this far counts as a welcome surprise for Democrats, especially considering how acrimoniously the original Build Back Better negotiations collapsed in December. Manchin walked away after accusing the White House of putting his family at risk by singling him out in an otherwise anodyne statement describing the status of the discussions. In announcing his decision on Fox News, he further complained that the Democrats’ proposal was full of budget gimmicks and could worsen inflation. Because Manchin represented the crucial 50th vote in the evenly divided Senate, his departure ended Biden’s hopes of delivering on a progressive agenda that initially included a federal paid-leave program, universal pre-kindergarten, free community college, and an extension of the president’s expanded child tax credit.

The negotiations remained dormant through the winter. “There is no Build Back Better bill,” Manchin told reporters in February. “It’s dead.” But he and Schumer quietly began talking again in the spring, keeping their negotiations secret both to avoid the daily pestering of the Capitol Hill press corps and to prevent Democrats from getting their hopes up. Gone are many of the items on Biden’s original wish list, as is the original $3.5 trillion price tag. The total revenue Schumer and Manchin now hope to generate through tax increases and drug-pricing reform is likely to be in the area of $1 trillion, with about $500 billion in new spending on climate and energy policies.

Any deal that Schumer and Manchin strike will probably win applause from the bulk of the Democratic Party, including progressives. A $1 trillion bill might seem paltry next to the dream of $3.5 trillion, but it’s a lot better than the nothing that most Democrats have expected to get for the past six months. “The contours are fine,” Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told me about the potential deal. He said the climate piece was “by far” the most important aspect of the package for progressives, especially in light of last month’s Supreme Court decision limiting the EPA’s ability to fight climate change. “We can’t reverse the Trump tax cuts if the planet disintegrates. The other two [proposals] are political winners,” Green said of the drug-pricing reforms and tax increases. “Climate change is just existential for the planet, and this might be our last chance.”

[Robinson Meyer: The Supreme Court’s EPA ruling is going to be very, very expensive]

Another sign that the negotiations are serious is that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to torpedo them last week by threatening to pull GOP support from a bipartisan high-tech manufacturing bill if the Democrats moved forward with the one-party reconciliation progress. Schumer’s move today suggests that at least for now, McConnell’s warning hasn’t scared off Manchin.

As I wrote last year, the political advantage of Biden’s economic agenda was always its size and ambition, because that meant with slim margins in Congress, it could withstand plenty of cuts and still represent a significant legislative accomplishment. That remains true today, perhaps even more so. An agreement on drug pricing, climate spending, and tax increases, combined with Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, the $1 trillion infrastructure law, and the recent bipartisan gun-safety compromise, would make the president’s legislative record look a lot more robust.

Politically, a scaled-down bill that passes close to the midterm elections, when it will be fresh in voters’ minds, might be just as beneficial to Democrats as a larger bill enacted months earlier. Each of the major components has clear constituencies. Lowering the cost of prescription drugs is a particular hit with seniors, a key voting bloc, and Democrats also plan to sell the change as a way to offset the impact of inflation. Combatting climate change is a priority of progressive and younger voters, whom Democrats need to turn out in November. And polls have long shown that tax increases on the wealthy are among the most broadly popular proposals in Biden’s plan.

Members of Congress love their sports metaphors, and in that spirit, the emerging Schumer-Manchin proposal is less a Hail Mary pass than a long-field-goal attempt right before halftime. Substantively, none of the proposals would fully solve the problems they aim to address. The drug-pricing scheme is less ambitious than what Democrats initially wanted, and Manchin has already watered down some of the climate policies backed by progressives. Electorally, given persistent inflation and Biden’s approval rating dipping into the 30s, maintaining the House majority may be impossible for Democrats (the Senate is another story). But taken as a whole, the package could help Democrats keep the score close—both in their bid to deliver tangible results for their voters and in the battle for power in Congress this fall.