Why it matters that Manchin balked at McConnell’s hostage gambit

Election Day 2022 is 17 weeks from today, and between now and then, there are a few major pieces of legislation the Democratic majority still hopes to pass.

One is a landmark spending package, which cannot be filibustered by the Republican minority, and which may include provisions related to prescription drug costs, climate, and health care. Another is a U.S./China competitiveness bill — the “United States Innovation and Competition Act” (USICA) — which has been the basis for bipartisan talks for nearly a year, and which relates to everything from manufacturing to jobs, trade to national security.

Neither bill is done, but there’s been meaningful progress on both fronts, and it’s hardly outlandish to think both measures could clear Capitol Hill in the coming months.

This is a scenario Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is eager to prevent.

A couple of weeks ago, the Kentucky Republican announced a new hostage plan: If Democrats pursued a budget reconciliation bill to lower the cost of medications, McConnell said, Republicans would kill the competitiveness bill, which he ostensibly supports, even if that results in helping China.

Yesterday, as Politico reported, the GOP’s Senate leader doubled down on the gambit.

McConnell reiterated his threat that the China competitiveness legislation, slowly languishing amid ongoing negotiations between the House and Senate, would not move forward if the Democrats continue their social spending push.

Politico added soon after that Senate Republicans “are lining up to back” McConnell’s strategy.

For proponents of the competitiveness bill, none of this was good news. Remember, the House and Senate have already passed versions of the bill, sending the matter to a conference committee that began work in April on merging the competing measures into one final package.

Now, McConnell has halted those negotiations altogether. The talks, which were moving toward a bipartisan resolution, have stopped — not because policymakers were butting heads, but because the Senate minority leader told his members to walk away from the negotiating table.

If Democrats wanted to get USICA moving again, they’d have to abandon their unrelated proposal.

What was even more interesting than McConnell’s threats, however, was the response from Democrats. Indeed, I’ve been eager to hear from Sen. Joe Manchin. Would the West Virginian, who nearly killed the reconciliation process several months ago, give up on the renewed talks to rescue USICA? Would the Senate’s most conservative Democrat grudgingly pay McConnell’s ransom in order to pass a bipartisan bill?

Evidently, no. “That is so wrong,” Manchin told reporters yesterday, adding, “This is the problem with politics.” The West Virginian added that he won’t “walk away” or be held “hostage” on reconciliation.

If McConnell thought he could bully Manchin, at least for now, it appears he thought wrong.

At this point, it’s not at all clear how, or whether, this standoff will be resolved. That said, as we’ve discussed, the Democratic majority has a few options, one of which is simply passing the Senate’s version of USICA through the House, circumventing McConnell’s scheme. It’s also possible Democrats could try to add USICA provisions to their reconciliation package.

Watch this space.

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