The White House privately rants about Manchin – and sees the futility of airing it in public

Manchin’s statement dealt a blow to an administration that had spent the better part of a year trying to mend relations with the West Virginia Democrat. It also added to the frustration that the senator never seems to be able to get a yes on a series of big questions.

And after pandering to the senator’s demands, only to see him twice blow up negotiations in spectacular fashion, even Biden expressed bewilderment. The president has told confidants that while he understands Manchin represents a dark red state, he doesn’t understand why he continues to torpedo the party’s best-laid plans.

« Manchin is ridiculous, » said a Democratic operative close to Hill’s leadership, who requested anonymity to describe the sentiment at the highest party level. « He’s just a game player and a bad actor. »

Yet even as congressional Democrats racked up criticism of Manchin — some pushing for him to be stripped of his Energy and Natural Resources Committee gavel — the White House is resisting the temptation to air its anger publicly. .

Biden gave his backing to Manchin’s new demand for a package that includes provisions to reduce the cost of prescription drug prices and a two-year extension of enhanced Obamacare subsidies, saying he wants it to be adopted before the August holidays.

White House aides are sticking to a general policy of not talking about negotiations on the legislation, a guideline established earlier this year after the senator blew up an earlier version of the bill following complaints, too much back and forth was going on in public. And some people close to Biden note the times the president and senior West Wing officials have praised their relationship with the enigmatic West Virginia lawmaker.

As for Manchin himself, word has filtered through the west wing that the aides must hold their fire on any attack.

« President Biden and senior White House officials have been in regular contact with Senator Manchin, but we do not detail private conversations, » White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement. « And we’ve been clear that the President and Senator Manchin are longtime friends who share important values ​​about standing up for middle-class families. »

The two, Bates added, « deal with each other in good faith and anyone who says otherwise is not speaking on behalf of the White House. »

It’s a restraint rooted less in a desire to play nice than in recognition of political reality: The last time they took a jab at Manchin, it backfired spectacularly, prompting a pause several months in negotiations around a stripped-down plan. Beyond that, no matter what the administration thinks of the legislator, it will need its vote again and again in a 50-50 Senate.

« In any negotiation, the person who wants the least usually wins, » said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. « Sen. Manchin has made it clear that he can accept or leave any reconciliation bill.

Biden, in agreeing to Manchin’s latest request, has pledged to advance his climate and energy agenda through executive action instead, and the White House has told climate advocates that some initial directives could arrive as soon as the end of this week, according to someone familiar with the matter.

But in a sign of the administration’s wariness to trigger the fossil fuel-friendly Manchin, the president is likely to suspend bolder executive actions — such as those over oil leases or the use of remaining authorities under the Clean Air Act – until it is clear that the narrower drug and health subsidies bill will pass and the climate legislation window has closed.

There is also some hope – however unlikely they admit – that Manchin might reconsider dropping the climate parts of the bill. A person close to Manchin said it was not impossible that he could.

« They should [leave some wiggle room]said that person, noting the difference between the Fox News interview last winter, when Manchin first blew negotiations, and the one with West Virginia radio host Hoppy Kercheval the week before. last, where he discussed the latest standoff. « One is ‘Fuck this, I’m done.’ The other is « I’m not leaving the table ».

The White House, for its part, is eager to move past months of difficult negotiations and sell what remains of the reconciliation bill as a signature victory just before the midterm elections.

The forward-looking package would allow Medicare to negotiate the price of certain drugs, fulfilling a long-standing Democratic political goal. It would also temporarily head off sudden hikes in health insurance premiums for millions — a prospect that had alarmed vulnerable Democrats because customers needed to be notified of such increases in the weeks leading up to the November election.

Were it not for the biggest legislative packages previously hung before Democrats over the past year, Biden allies argued, the shrunken bill would be seen as a historic success rather than a prize. of consolation.

“If you can help people with prescription drugs, drugs that cost two to three times less in other countries for the same pill; if you can help a 60-year-old couple with a $45,000 income not have to pay an extra $1,900 to get their insurance coverage, you’ve achieved the president’s goals, » the city’s economic adviser said Monday. White House, Jared Bernstein.

Still, signs of irritation showed through. Asked on Friday whether Manchin acted in good faith, Biden simply replied that he “did not negotiate with Joe Manchin. I have no idea. »

A spokesperson for Manchin said the senator « has the utmost respect for President Biden and has repeatedly made it clear that he has not backed out of any negotiations. »

Even after Manchin signaled his willingness to reopen negotiations earlier this year, Biden avoided getting personally involved. As the White House kept abreast of the talks, top aides left it to the Senate Majority Leader chuck schumer to find a new path with Manchin. As for the White House legislative affairs shop, the person close to Manchin called the senator’s relationship with it « non-existent. »

The moment of the deal’s death knell also raised eyebrows. In December, Manchin took to Fox News to scuttle the president’s agenda, a deliberate choice of venue that drew fury from the West Wing.

Last week, news of Manchin’s reluctance came while Biden was abroad, with the senator’s intentions becoming public just as the president was holding politically sensitive meetings in Saudi Arabia over oil. Some Democrats felt the move served to underscore the difficulty Biden has had in delivering on a number of progressive priorities, including climate change.

But Manchin’s allies pushed back on the suggestion, noting he hadn’t disclosed the news or backed away from the talks so much as he had pushed to suspend them to gauge the latest inflation trends. An administration official also downplayed the significance of the moment.

Unlike last December, when Manchin turned to conservative Cable to permanently halt negotiations on the previous $1.5 trillion package, he insisted he was still interested in talking.

But there’s little time left in the legislative calendar, and Democrats on Capitol Hill who have tamed their frustration for months are now accusing him of derailing Biden’s agenda and misleading the party.

« I think I lost my faith once I saw he didn’t tell the president the truth, » the rep said. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a central player in the decision last year to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill favored by Manchin on the condition that he and Biden craft a separate reconciliation bill. « If you don’t tell the president the truth, you can’t be considered a good, honest negotiator. »

Democrats in recent days have also reserved some of their criticism for Biden. They argued that the childish gloves used to manipulate Manchin represent just the latest example of the White House believing it can coax and cajole its way to legislative victories – only to find the Senate is more stuck than ever .

« My personal opinion is that in many ways the White House assumed the Senate was operating the way it did when Joe Biden was there, » the rep said. John Yarmuth (D- Ky.). « And that’s a very naive and incorrect perspective. »

Anthony Adragna, Sarah Ferris and Sam Stein contributed to this report.


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