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Democrats need to get real on Build Back Better

The question isn’t what you dream of; it’s what you can get done.

Senator Ed Markey, seen here at press conference outside the US Capitol on Oct. 7, has suggested that Joe Manchin, President Biden, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi sit in a room and determine what they can agree upon in regard to Build Back Better.Win McNamee/Getty

After months and months and months, during which their Build Back Better agenda has become an exercise in Bumble About Forever, Democrats need to try a different tack.

That starts with facing facts: Their efforts to enact a champagne agenda on a Miller Lite mandate are not working. And given that they need every single Senate Democrat, plus the vote of Vice President Kamala Harris, to squeak something through under simple-majority-vote reconciliation rules, there’s little reason to think that will change.

Persisting in that effort will only solidify the impression that the party’s ideologically sprawling assemblage of lawmakers can’t muster the self-discipline to mold themselves into a governing coalition.


Indignant lefties can mutter and growl and gnash their teeth from here to eternity at Senator Joe Manchin, the centrist Democratic holdout from West Virginia, but as satisfying as that may prove to progressives, it won’t bring the party any closer to getting any part of their social agenda passed.

But no matter where one puts the blame, it’s time for a different approach.

Call it: Let’s Salvage Something. Or perhaps: An Agenda from the Ashes.

After Manchin’s recent Dem-in-the-Fox House announcement that he was a no on BBB, the mood among pragmatic Capitol Hill Democrats has changed from an optimistic New Deal-reduxism to a resigned realization that, at least for this year, Democrats have little choice except to take what Manchin will give.

In fact, that’s pretty much what progressive stalwart Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, told Manchin on a recent Senate Zoom call. As Markey recounted to me, he told Manchin: “You and President Biden, and Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, should get in a room and whatever you can agree with, all of the others should give our proxies to support that agreement.”


Markey feels that way because, after a year in which the long-predicted ravages of climate change have arrived with a vengeance, Democrats have a potentially transformative $555 billion (over 10 years) package of grants, tax incentives, and rebates to push toward a greener future. Further, Manchin seems OK with almost all of it.

“The climate and clean energy provisions in the package have been largely worked through and financed,” said Markey, adding that Manchin recently said he thought the climate package “is one that we probably can come to agreement [on] much easier than anything else.”

“So let’s pass them,” Markey said.

Doing so would help pave the way for much wider utilization of electric vehicles, promote home solar-panel installation and a switch from fossil-fuel furnaces to heat pumps, advance energy efficiency, expand and strengthen the nation’s power grid, and further the country’s wind- and solar-power manufacturing capacity.

Manchin did oppose what had been an important part of that plan: tax breaks for utilities that invest in clean power production. Still, even without that provision, experts say the climate package would bring very significant progress on reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

On the House side, budget chief Richard Neal, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, is a strong supporter of the climate package but doesn’t want to do climate alone. He says, however, that if Manchin would specify his firm 10-year spending limit for the domestic package and a list of programs he can accept, he’s sure Democrats can build something workable within that framework.


“One of the challenges we’ve had with Senator Manchin is that he’s been clear about what he’s against but less clear about what he’s for,” Neal told me. “We need [him] to tell us what he’s willing to accept.” That wouldn’t automatically be the final agreement, Neal said, but it would set clear parameters for bargaining.

That ought to be the Democratic focus now. It’s clear that it’s going to take more than Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer’s less-than-stellar Senate-side leadership abilities. That’s why I like Markey’s idea of putting Manchin, Biden, Pelosi, and Schumer in one room, with the notion that what they can agree on would become the Democratic leadership’s consensus domestic agenda. I’d add Neal to the participants because of his political and budgeting skills and his previous experience working with Manchin.

What emerges may be disappointing compared with progressives’ initial aspirations, but it would still be worthwhile. Even $1.7 trillion over 10 years “buys a lot of good stuff,” noted Neal.

The orphaned aspects of the plan, meanwhile, can be something Democrats can run on this year, with a simple pitch to voters: If you want this, vote for us.

Contrariwise, if Democrats can’t pass something substantial, they’ll head into the midterms looking not like a governing party but like a political case study in futile factional fecklessness. And when it comes to grades, that earns not a trio of B’s but three F’s.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.