Congress approved two major packages this year: coronavirus relief and infrastructure. But President Joe Biden’s sweeping $1.75 trillion economic package, much of which the White House said was aimed at “addressing longstanding discrimination and barriers that have hampered women” in the workforce, didn’t make it through — and now may be dead altogether.
Any Senate vote on Build Back Better had already been delayed to 2022, and the legislation needed the support of all 50 senators who caucus with Democrats. On Sunday, Sen. Joe Manchin said that he had done “everything humanly possible” to support Biden’s Build Back Better agenda but “can’t get there.”
“I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation,” the West Virginia Democrat said on Fox News. “I just can’t. I tried everything humanly possible.”
Biden and other Democrats in 2020 races campaigned on programs including paid leave and subsidized child care that were overtly designed to support and appeal to working women. The president called his Build Back Better plan a “fundamental game-changer for families … especially women.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said it would “free up women to go into the workplace.” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said that a lack of quality and affordable child care is preventing American women from remaining in or returning to the workforce and that Build Back Better offered a “window of opportunity.”
One holdup for Manchin during negotiations was the proposed extension of the expanded child tax credit. Congress approved the expansion in the COVID-19 relief bill, and Build Back Better would have extended that for at least one year, also making it permanently available for the poorest families. The expansion had the potential to cut the child poverty rate in the United States by 45 percent, from 13.6 percent to 7.5 percent, according to some estimates. The expanded credit now expires at year’s end.
For months, Democrats have haggled with Manchin and other moderate Democrats, including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, over various Build Back Better provisions. The current version of the package passed by the House and before the Senate includes universal pre-K, subsidized child care, climate change mitigation measures and paid leave.
Manchin and Sinema were among the Democrats who helped negotiate a bipartisan compromise on a $1 trillion infrastructure package signed into law last month that was originally supposed to move in tandem with the Build Back Better plan. Moderates wanted the two bills to be delinked; progressives wanted assurances that Build Back Better would pass before approving the infrastructure proposal so they would not lose their leverage.
Democrats were aiming to pass Build Back Better through a once-a-year process known as reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority instead of 60 of 100 votes. But, in the evenly split Senate, even one Democratic defector — such as Manchin — can tank a reconciliation bill’s chances. Though provisions such as paid leave, free community college and immigration reform had already been cut — or seemed likely to be cut — either during negotiations or by the Senate parliamentarian, Democrats had before Sunday been planning on picking the plan up when they returned in January.
Manchin said in a statement after Sunday’s interview that he has “always said, ‘If I can’t go back home and explain it, I can’t vote for it.” He cited concerns about the price tag, related debt and the security of the electrical grid. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Manchin had “reversed his position on Build Back Better” and that they would “press him to see if he will reverse his position yet again.”
Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California called it a “slap in the face to women.”
“We’re ok to pass an infrastructure bill where 90% of jobs will go to men, but won’t enable women to return to work? We’re at 1989 levels of women’s labor force participation,” Speier wrote on Twitter.
Build Back Better isn’t the only piece of legislation important to key Democratic constituencies that remains unfinished at year’s end. Here’s what else was left on Congress’ plate as 2021 draws to a close:
The House of Representatives passed the For the People Act, which would change campaign finance laws and reduce partisan gerrymandering of districts, but it died in the evenly split Senate. Manchin worked on a separate piece of bipartisan legislation that went nowhere. Many Democratic lawmakers have cited voting rights in calling for changing the Senate’s filibuster rules, which require 60 votes to proceed on most legislation. Thus far, Democrats do not have the support within their own party to change filibuster procedures.
Codifying Roe v. Wade
With the Supreme Court poised to curtail or overturn the constitutional right to an abortion established in the 1973 ruling Roe v. Wade, Democrats introduced the Women’s Health Protection Act. In September, the House passed it in a historic vote, the first time the chamber has ever codified the national right to an abortion. It has not been brought up for a vote in the Senate, where it does not have the support to pass.
Biden was elected in the wake of national protests over racially motivated police killings, and in September he called the 2020 murder of George Floyd a “stain on the soul of America.” The House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in March. But, like with many things, the effort died in the Senate.