Manchin calls for ‘pause’ on $3.5 trillion budget bill

West Virginia Democrat deals new blow to White House, party leaders’ plans for major spending expansion

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III says there are too many economic unknowns at present to warrant rushing ahead with a $3.5 trillion spending package. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III says there are too many economic unknowns at present to warrant rushing ahead with a $3.5 trillion spending package. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 2, 2021 at 5:37pm

Democrats should “hit the pause button” on their still-developing $3.5 trillion reconciliation package, according to one of the party’s key swing votes, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III.

In remarks made Wednesday at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s 2021 business summit and in a Thursday op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Manchin said there are too many economic unknowns at present to warrant rushing ahead with such an expansive measure.

He cited the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the initial economic recovery that led to inflation spikes, and the recent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as reasons to hold off on spending another $3.5 trillion when the national debt is already approaching $29 trillion.

“We’re running out of tools for the toolbox if we get hit. … There’s an awful lot of things we need to be considering,” Manchin said at the chamber summit, accusing his fellow Democrats of “basically being shortsighted right now” with their plans to pass a $3.5 trillion partisan spending bill.

“I would ask my colleagues and all of the Senate to hit the pause button on the $3.5 [trillion],” he added. “Let’s sit back. Let’s see what happens. We’ve got so much on our plate. … That would be the prudent, wise thing to do.”

Manchin told the chamber he had thought “long and hard whether I would say that today or not, but I think this is the right place.” He acknowledged that his remarks would get back to his caucus and that Washington would “go nuts.”

Manchin’s comments are significant, as he acknowledged, because congressional Democratic leaders are hoping to pass the reconciliation bill as soon as later this month, and his vote will be needed to get any package through the evenly divided Senate.

Manchin doubled down in his Wall Street Journal op-ed, calling on Congress to “hit a strategic pause on the budget-reconciliation legislation.”

“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 wrote. “While some have suggested this reconciliation legislation must be passed now, I 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.”

But Manchin didn’t end his argument there. Congress should first “allow for a complete reporting and analysis of the implications a multitrillion-dollar bill will have for this generation and the next,” he wrote.

“I, for one, won’t support a $3.5 trillion bill, or anywhere near that level of additional spending, without greater clarity about why Congress chooses to ignore the serious effects inflation and debt have on existing government programs,” Manchin wrote. He cited Wednesday’s report from government trustees that projections for when Social Security won’t be able to pay full benefits had moved up by a year, to 2033, as a result of the pandemic-driven recession.

Exacerbating tensions

Manchin’s call for a pause is likely to further exacerbate intraparty tensions between moderates like him, concerned about the size of the reconciliation bill, and progressives who want to spend more.

House progressives have sought to pressure Democratic moderates like Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who also opposes spending $3.5 trillion, by threatening to oppose the bipartisan infrastructure bill they helped negotiate. Progressives have said they’ll only support the infrastructure bill if the Senate passes a “robust” reconciliation bill that fulfills their priorities on climate, health care, affordable housing, child care, immigration and more.

[Sinema deals blow to Democrats' budget reconciliation target]

Manchin's stance won't change the party's plans, according to Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.

"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?" Jayapal tweeted in response to Manchin on Thursday. "Absolutely not."

At the chamber summit, Manchin referred to efforts to link the infrastructure and reconciliation bills as a “chess game” and said he’s “hard-pressed” to believe progressives will “let the perfect be the enemy of the good” and oppose the infrastructure bill, which would fund critical transportation and other projects across the country.

“If you’re using one bill as a leverage over another, doesn’t it tell you you might have a problem with the one bill you need help from for leveraging the other?” he said.

Manchin also told the chamber that Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pulled him aside the night before the Senate passed the infrastructure bill to let him know he could kill the measure if he wanted as he asked Manchin if he would vote for a reconciliation bill that spends $3.5 trillion.

“I said, ‘Hell no, Bernie, I’m not voting for $3.5 trillion,’” Manchin recalled. “And he … looked at me and says, ‘Well, at least you’re honest with me.’”

Manchin said he told Sanders he’s willing to work with him to identify an appropriate amount of spending and how to pay for that amount, “but just putting an arbitrary number, no I’m not going to do that.”

Sanders ended up voting for the infrastructure bill, along with every other Democrat in the Senate and 19 Republicans.

Moderate House Democrats have since secured a commitment from their leaders that the infrastructure bill will get a vote by Sept. 27. Democratic leaders are working to try to get the reconciliation package to the floor before then to avoid any issues, given the progressives’ threat.

House committees began marking up their portions of the package on Thursday, and all 13 panels with instructions are expected to finish their markups by Sept. 15. The House Budget Committee will then package the different pieces together, and leadership hopes to bring the measure to the floor the week of Sept. 20.

Manchin’s call for a pause on the reconciliation bill could affect that timeline, as House moderates also got their leadership to agree to not asking them to pass a reconciliation package in their chamber unless all 50 Senate Democrats support it too.

Manchin chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and his counterparts on House Natural Resources began marking up their portion of the reconciliation bill Thursday. Moderate committee members Jim Costa of California and Ed Case of Hawaii expressed concern about lack of initial coordination with the Senate, though they said they’d vote to advance the measure.

After Manchin’s op-ed was published, however, the House panel announced it would delay final votes until next week, though it wasn’t clear the two events were related.

“One voice does make a difference, and one vote really makes a difference … in this unusual situation we’re in,” Manchin noted at the chamber summit during a portion of his remarks that weren’t specifically about the reconciliation bill. “But this too shall pass. By January 2023 the chances of us having a 50-50 split in the Senate is very, very slim. It doesn’t happen that often. So thank God, I can’t wait until that comes.”

Joseph Morton contributed to this report.