By Max Ghenis
When President Joe Biden announced the Build Back Better framework in October, he called it “the most transformative investment in children and caregiving in generations” and “the largest effort to combat climate change in American history.” A month later, the House passed the Build Back Better Act, following through on Biden’s priorities by devoting $775 billion to family benefits and $560 billion to climate. But last week, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said he “cannot vote to move forward,” denying the reconciliation bill the 50th Senate vote it needs to pass.
Manchin’s statement blames the bill’s size, describing it as “sweeping” and “mammoth,” and cites the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate that Build Back Better would add $3 trillion to the deficit over a decade if programs scheduled to expire were instead made permanent.
More fundamentally, though, the rejection represents a difference in values between the West Virginia senator and other congressional Democrats.
On the issues of child poverty and climate change, Democrats have a closer ally across the aisle.
When it comes to child poverty, experts agree that the simplest solution works. Giving families money improves children’s educational outcomes, healthand even longevity. Democrats have long sought to apply this direct remedy, and in 2017, Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) introduced the American Family Act, a Child Tax Credit expansion that promised to cut child poverty nearly in half and overall poverty by a fifth. The American Rescue Plan ultimately adopted a similar policy, keeping millions of children out of poverty each month this year. Extending the program, especially the element that helps our poorest children, has been central to Build Back Better since the start. But Manchin has suggested that parents spend the benefits on vices (despite evidence to the contrary) and when he presented a counteroffer to the White House last week, the Child Tax Credit was absent.
Experts also agree that keeping our environment habitable requires quickly lowering carbon emissions. Economists overwhelmingly support one tool in particular: a carbon dividend, in which the government levies a fee on fossil fuel companies and rebates the proceeds equally to all Americans. A carbon dividend would more than double Build Back Better’s emissions cuts, avert millions of deaths from air pollution and even lower poverty and inequality. Manchin, however, has long defended the coal industry against legislation that threatens the high-carbon energy source, including President Barack Obama‘s cap-and-trade proposal. When it came to Build Back Better, he killed a plan to fine utilities that keep burning fossil fuels, acted as the sole Democratic holdout on a corporate polluter fee and warned in his statement that accelerating decarbonization would have “catastrophic consequences.”
Where Manchin may not vote to meaningfully address child poverty and climate change, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) would. In February, Romney released a Child Tax Credit expansion called the Family Security Act, and last week he urged Congress to use that plan as a starting point for bipartisan child benefit reform. Romney has also called for a carbon dividend onmultiple occasions, saying in October, “For the life of me I don’t understand why Democrats right now through reconciliation […] are not planning on putting in place a price on carbon.”
Romney would likely demand concessions on other parts of Build Back Better, especially the House bill’s $275 billion to expand the state and local tax (SALT) deduction and $270 billion to fund childcare. Liberal policy experts, too, have criticized these provisions: SALT expansion favors the rich, while childcare subsidies raise costs for unsubsidized parents, create welfare cliffs that discourage work, and exclude children in non-participating states. Romney’s Family Security Act instead repeals SALT and the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, making the plan progressive, especially paired with its child benefit, which is more generous than Build Back Better.
Renegotiating Build Back Better with Romney as the 50th vote could strengthen its anti-poverty and pro-climate impacts, but it’s not the only way to secure an expanded Child Tax Credit and carbon dividend if Manchin won’t vote for them. Nor do Democrats have to convince 10 Republican senators to join Romney and overcome the filibuster. Since the Senate can draft two reconciliation bills each year, they could use one for a Manchin Build Back Better Act and another for a Romney “Child Poverty and Carbon Emissions Reduction Act.”
With kids in poverty and a climate crisis already underway, Democrats don’t have the luxury of turning away allies. Romney could be their key to lasting change.