Democrats ended 2021 on a down note with the apparent collapse of the Build Back Better Act. 2022 hasn’t started any better, with two voting-rights bills defeated despite President Biden’s impassioned plea for their passage. These failures would be distressing enough for Democrats if they could be blamed only on the fifty senators on the other side of the aisle, but they’re particularly galling because two of their own—Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin—are among the obstructionists, refusing to lift the filibuster to get the bills through. With the math against them and the midterms bearing down, it may benefit President Biden and his party to focus on things they might actually be able to achieve—especially given that Americans generally like much of what the Democrats are proposing.
Begin by rethinking Build Back Better. If Manchin and the Republicans complained mostly about its price tag, there were legitimate reasons to criticize how the package was crafted. There were, for example, its accounting “gimmicks,” as Manchin called them. The Build Back Better Act initially cost $3.5 trillion, and when Manchin said he would only support a bill half that size, Democrats lowered the cost by funding the same programs for fewer years rather than fully funding fewer measures, expecting that the programs would be funded in the future. Party leaders failed to take what they could get when Manchin still seemed willing to negotiate. They also never really sold the bill to the public, a task that was especially vital given its size and scope. A clearer argument about how the provisions of the Build Back Better Act would have helped people concretely—including Manchin’s constituents in West Virginia—would have put more pressure on dissenters within the ranks.
Now that Build Back Better isn’t likely to be passed in its entirety, Democrats should break it down into its most popular components and vote on them separately. This will require some difficult decisions about what to prioritize. Democrats should start with the measures that the American people have been shown to like most: paid family leave, investment in renewable energy, the child-tax credit, and allowing Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices. Individually, some of these measures could secure enough Republican support to pass the sixty-vote threshold. Another potential upside for Democrats is that by holding a vote on each bill, issue by issue, they will force Republicans to make a choice: either vote yea or be on the record against measures intended to help children and families, miners suffering from black-lung disease, or municipalities seeking to construct affordable housing.