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White House retools strategy toward Sen. Manchin, with Biden agenda on the line

Biden and his advisers are planning to rely on their revamped approach — keeping the progress of the talks more confidential and making greater use of the White House legislative team and Cabinet members

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) looks on as he talks to reporters as he leaves the U.S. Capitol in Washington
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, looks on as he talks to reporters as he leaves the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on December 15, 2021.
ELIZABETH FRANTZ/REUTERS
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WASHINGTON —White House officials are planning a more subtle approach to try to win pivotal Sen. Joe Manchin's support for a key part of President Joe Biden's legislative agenda, hoping that keeping matters private and avoiding public spats can help salvage the ambitious Build Back Better climate and social spending bill.

Biden last year won congressional passage of COVID-19 relief legislation and a sweeping infrastructure improvement bill with fellow Democrat Manchin's backing. But the West Virginia senator remains a significant roadblock toward getting some version of Biden's $1.7 trillion Build Back Better bill — passed by the House of Representatives in November — through the Senate.

With talks between Manchin and the White House expected to resume this week, Biden and his advisers are planning to rely on their revamped approach — keeping the progress of the talks more confidential and making greater use of the White House legislative team and Cabinet members, officials said.

A public tussle between Biden — a long-time former senator himself — and Manchin in recent months over the bill resulted in its prospects for passage slipping even as Manchin's public approval ratings in his home state rose and his fundraising haul grew.

"I just want to make sure we find a balance and do something we can afford," Manchin told reporters on Monday, referring to the Build Back Better legislation.

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Biden in December said that he and Manchin would "get something done" on the bill.

Manchin's vote is crucial for Biden by virtue of simple mathematics. The Senate is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, with Biden's party controlling it only because Vice President Kamala Harris can cast a tie-breaking vote. That means any measure that can pass with a simple majority must attract Manchin's support if Republicans remain united in opposition as usual.

Manchin, considered the Senate's most conservative Democrat, previously served as governor of West Virginia, a very Republican state. He surprised Biden and presidential advisers when he announced in December he would not support the bill, later blaming White House staff . Manchin also dealt his fellow Democrats a setback on major voting rights legislation .

The White House needs to win over a second holdout Democrat, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, as well. Manchin's December announcement followed weeks of calls and meetings between him, Sinema and Biden - with the White House giving blow-by-blow details to an eager Washington press corps.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a bilateral meeting with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a bilateral meeting with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, on January 31, 2022.
LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS

'NOT GOING TO SPEAK'

This time, the White House plans not to disclose much about Biden's conversations with lawmakers, including Manchin.

"We're just not going to speak to or confirm any conversations the president has with members of the Senate, moving forward," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last week.

The change appears to be a tacit admission that Manchin had sometimes been mishandled by the White House. At the same time, some Democrats in Congress and some at the White House consider Manchin an unreliable negotiating partner, saying he has agreed on certain provisions in the past only to later renege.

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"Senator Manchin clearly articulated his policy concerns with Build Back Better which are rooted in rising inflation, the ongoing pandemic and the geopolitical uncertainty around the world," an aide to the senator said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A Biden administration official, also speaking on condition of anonymity about Manchin, said the White House needs to "stand in his shoes politically and be willing to understand and appreciate the variables of what it means to represent a state like West Virginia."

Republican then-President Donald Trump won West Virginia against Biden by 39 percentage points in 2020 — among his largest margins in any state — while losing nationally.

Manchin, first elected to the Senate in 2010, comfortably won the Democratic primary during his 2018 re-election bid before winning the general election by 3 percentage points, showing he has little margin for error if he wants to be re-elected in 2024.

He managed to raise nearly $5 million in political donations last year versus less than $1 million in 2020, Federal Election Commission records showed , including from Republican donors.

West Virginia, a state of 1.8 million people, ranks among the lowest in the United States in various health and education categories — areas the legislation at issue would address. It would provide billions of dollars for the healthcare industry and universal pre-kindergarten education.

Manchin remains open to talks on a significant spending bill and his relationship with Biden is solid, said a source familiar with the senator's thinking, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Congressional Democrats are hoping for a Build Back Better agreement before Biden's State of Union address, set for March 1.

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"We are in touch with a wide range of members working to pass the president's economic growth plan for the middle class, which you heard a number of top business executives speak in support of," said White House spokesman Andrew Bates, referring to Biden's meeting with CEOs last week. "Anyone purporting to share our strategy with regard to any lawmakers is not speaking for the White House."

(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw, Andrea Shalal, Richard Cowan; editing by Will Dunham and Heather Timmons.)

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