Legislation

Opinion | Manchin says he’s ready to negotiate again. Democrats must hold him to it.

Though Democrats might feel tempted to throttle Manchin for the harm he’s done by killing Biden’s Build Back Better reconciliation bill, their best option now is to take him at his word — and try to hold him to it.

To be sure, Manchin greeted Biden’s speech by scorning the president’s insistence that more spending now might help bring down costs for ordinary Americans. But now he’s again back to saying he might be open to something that could pass by the Senate reconciliation process, meaning with only Democrats.

Second, he says Democrats should get revenue from two sources: tax reform (reversing some GOP tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, as BBB would have done) and allowing the government to negotiate prices for some prescription drugs and capping some price hikes at inflation, which could save the government hundreds of billions of dollars.

Third, he wants to take those savings and split them equally between deficit reduction and spending on climate change.

That would still leave a lot of BBB behind, of course. But a Democratic aide says this could be a potentially fruitful opening. Via this route, you probably could raise revenue to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on tax incentives and other measures to encourage the manufacture and consumption of alternative energy sources (as BBB would have included).

“This is his way of saying he’s open for business,” the aide tells us, adding that if Manchin is serious, “we need to take this deal immediately.”

But what would this look like? Well, according to Steve Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, a reasonable starting point would be the revenue that the House version of BBB would have raised, which total nearly $1.5 trillion, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Those revenue raisers include a variety of corporate tax reforms and higher rates on top earners, which Manchin appears open to. Following his own template here, if you plowed a bit more than $700 billion of this into deficit reduction, that would leave at least another $700 billion for spending.

“Half could be devoted to the deficit, and half to spending priorities,” Rosenthal told us.

That would cover the $555 billion to encourage alternative energy sources in the original BBB, and leave a couple hundred billion left to spend.

Following Manchin’s template further, you might be able to do some more genuinely good things. Prescription drug pricing reform would raise nearly $300 billion, according to Kaiser Family Foundation estimates.

If you add that to the aforementioned couple hundred billion, you could fund expanded subsidies for lower-income people who buy health coverage on the Affordable Care Act Exchanges, expand the pool of people eligible for those subsidies, and fund Medicaid for people living in red states that haven’t taken the ACA expansion. All that would benefit millions of people.

“With about $300 billion in savings from lowering drug costs, plus a portion of the revenues from higher taxes, it should be possible to extend premium help to ACA enrollees and cover people left out of Medicaid,” Larry Levitt, the executive vice president for health policy at Kaiser, tells us.

If something like this ends up passing, there will be reason to lament the many solutions to pressing problems that died along with BBB. But the contours of even this scaled-back legislation — on taxes, on health care, on climate — would be profoundly worthwhile.

And here’s the most important point of all: These things are eminently doable. That is, as long as Manchin means what he says. Only Manchin himself knows if that’s the case, of course, but Democrats should do all they can to find out one way or the other.


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