A divided Senate voted Saturday to start debatereinforcing the sprawling set of President Joe Biden’s priorities on climate, energy, health and taxation after his initial test as he begins moving through Congress.
In a preview of the votes expected on a mountain of amendments, the United Democrats pushed the legislation through an evenly divided room of 51-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie and overcoming the Republican opposition unanimously. The package, a dwindling version of past trillions of dollars of measures that Democrats failed to deliver, has become a partisan battleground over inflation, gasoline prices and other issues that polls show drive voters.
The House of Representatives, in which Democrats have a slim majority, could give final approval next Friday when lawmakers plan to return to Washington.
Then came the voteMost Democrats’ 755-page bill revised. But Elizabeth McDonough, the chamber’s nonpartisan arbiter, said Democrats should abandon much of their plan to reduce drug prices.
McDonough said Democrats have violated Senate budget rules by imposing heavy penalties on drug makers who raise prices beyond inflation in the private insurance market. That was the bill’s main pricing protection for the nearly 180 million people whose health coverage comes from private insurance, either through work or buying on their own.
Other pharmaceutical provisions have remained the same, including giving Medicare the ability to negotiate what it pays for drugs to its 64 million elderly recipients, a longstanding Democratic aspiration. Penalties will apply to manufacturers for inflation to override drugs sold to Medicare, and there is an annual cap of $2,000 on the costs of free drugs and vaccines for Medicare beneficiaries.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y. “This historic law will reduce inflation, cut costs, and fight climate change. It’s time to move this nation forward.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, said Democrats were “misreading the anger of the American people as mandating another reckless tax and spending spree.” He said Democrats “have already robbed American families once through inflation and now the solution is to rob American families again.”
Saturday’s vote capped an astonishing 10-day period that saw Democrats revive key components of Biden’s seemingly dead agenda. In quick deals with two of the Democrats’ most unlikely senators — first conservative Joe Manchin of West Virginia, then Arizona centrist Kirsten Sinema — Schumer put together a package that would give the party a breakthrough on the back of the fall congressional elections.
A White House statement said the legislation “will help address today’s most pressing economic challenges, make our economy stronger for decades to come, and position the United States as the world’s leader in clean energy.”
Assuming that Democrats resist a non-stop “Rama vote” for amendments — many designed by Republicans to block the measure — they should be able to support that measure through the Senate.
“What would a vote in rama be like? It’s going to be like hell,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, of the amendments the Republican Party has approached. By supporting the Democratic bill, he said, Manchin and Cinema “are empowering legislation that will make the average person’s life more difficult” by imposing energy costs while raising taxes and making it more difficult for companies to hire workers.
The bill introduces the spending and tax incentives that progressives would prefer to buy electric cars and make buildings more energy efficient. But in a bow to Mansion, whose state is a leading producer of fossil fuels, there is also money to reduce carbon emissions from coal plants and language that requires the government to open up more federal land and water to oil exploration.
It would extend the end of subsidies that help millions of people with private insurance premiums for three years, and there’s $4 billion to help Western countries combat drought. A new clause will create a cap of $35 a month for insulin, the expensive diabetes drug, for Medicare and private insurance patients starting next year. It seems that the language can be weakened or removed during the discussion.
Reflecting Democrats’ demands for tax equality, there will be a new minimum tax of 15% on some companies that earn more than $1 billion annually but pay much less than the current 21% corporate tax. Companies that buy back their shares will be taxed at 1% for these transactions, after Sinema refused to support higher taxes on private equity firm executives and hedge fund managers. The IRS budget will be injected to boost tax collections.
While the bill’s final costs are still to be determined, overall it would spend nearly $400 billion over 10 years to slow climate change, which analysts say would be the country’s largest investment in the effort, and billions more on health care. It would collect more than $700 billion in taxes and government savings in drug costs, leaving about $300 billion in deficit reduction over the next decade — a flash compared to the $16 trillion projected budget shortfall in that period.
Democrats are using special procedures that would allow them to pass the measure without having to reach the 60-vote majority often needed by legislation in the Senate.
The parliamentarian decides whether parts of the legislation should be dropped for violating these rules, which includes a requirement that the provisions are intended primarily to affect the federal budget, not force a new policy.