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Manchin rejects Biden's $1.75tn 'Build Back Better' investment bill

Senator's opposition imperils White House agenda on climate change, safety net

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin has been a key holdout on the White House's "Build Back Better" plan, the cornerstone of President Joe Biden's legislative agenda.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat who is key to President Joe Biden's hopes of passing a $1.75 trillion domestic investment bill, said on Sunday he would not support the package.

"I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation," Manchin said during an interview with the "Fox News Sunday" program, citing concerns about inflation. "I just can't. I have tried everything humanly possible."

The White House called Manchin's remarks a breach of commitments he made to find common ground, and said it would find a way to move forward with the legislation in 2022.

"If his comments on FOX and written statement indicate an end to that effort, they represent a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position, and a breach of his commitments to the President and the Senator's colleagues in the House and Senate," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.

Many Democrats feel passage of the bill is essential to the party's chances of maintaining control of Congress in next year's elections.

The exchange marked the first sharp public break between the White House and a senator who many top allies of Biden privately regard as damaging the Democratic president's political future.

The White House had hoped to keep negotiations cordial and private in the hope of avoiding alienating the critical ally. Sunday's shift - a public rebuke of Manchin that revealed details of private talks - suggested a new phase in Biden's push for legislation he regards as essential to his legacy.

The West Virginia senator's comments drew outrage from liberal Democrats and Senator Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist who helped shape the bill and called for a vote to be held on the measure anyway.

Manchin has been a key holdout on the White House's "Build Back Better" plan, which aims to bolster the U.S. social safety net and fight climate change and is the cornerstone of Biden's legislative agenda.

In a statement released after the "Fox News Sunday" interview, Manchin said that increasing the U.S. debt load would "drastically hinder" the country's ability to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and geopolitical threats.

"My Democratic colleagues in Washington are determined to dramatically reshape our society in a way that leaves our country even more vulnerable to the threats we face," he said in the statement. "I cannot take that risk with a staggering debt of more than $29 trillion and inflation taxes that are real and harmful to every hard-working American at the gasoline pumps, grocery stores and utility bills with no end in sight."

Manchin's support is crucial in a chamber where the Democrats have the slimmest margin of control and Republicans are united in their opposition to the bill. Even if he were somehow convinced to back the bill, the White House would still have to win over Senator Kyrsten Sinema, another moderate Democrat who has not committed to supporting it.

Though talks with Manchin had been going poorly, Biden's aides expressed confidence in recent days that they would eventually secure a deal.

The package would raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations to pay for a host of programs to thwart climate change, boost healthcare subsidies and provide free childcare.

Biden has argued that lowering such costs is critical at a time of rising inflation and as the economy recovers from the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans say the proposed legislation would fuel inflation and hurt the economy.

U.S. annual inflation is running at more than double the Federal Reserve's 2% target.

Sanders, who is aligned with Democrats in the Senate, told CNN on Sunday that he thinks there should still be a vote on the proposed legislation, despite Manchin's opposition.

"I hope that we will bring a strong bill to the floor of the Senate as soon as we can and let Mr. Manchin explain to the people of West Virginia why he doesn't have the guts to stand up to powerful special interests," Sanders said.

Biden last month signed into law a $1 trillion infrastructure bill designed to create jobs by dispersing money to state and local governments to fix crumbling bridges and roads and by expanding broadband internet access.

Liberal Democrats in Congress had pushed for the coupling of the Build Back Better legislation with the infrastructure bill in the hope of ensuring the passage of the former. U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, led an effort in September to decouple the two bills.

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