The divided Senate voted Saturday to begin the debatebolstering President Joe Biden’s expansive collection of climate, energy, health and tax priorities beyond her initial test as she begins to move through Congress.
In a preview of votes expected on a mountain of amendments, united Democrats pushed the legislation through the evenly divided chamber 51-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking a tie and overcoming unanimous Republican opposition. The package, a watered-down version of earlier multitrillion-dollar measures that Democrats failed to push through, has become a partisan battleground over inflation, gas prices and other issues that polls show are driving voters.
The House, where Democrats hold a slim majority, could finally approve it next Friday, when lawmakers plan to return to Washington.
The vote came laterin most of the Democrats’ revised 755-page bill. But Elizabeth McDonough, the chamber’s nonpartisan rules judge, said Democrats had to abandon a key part of their plan to cap drug prices.
MacDonough said Democrats violated Senate budget rules with language imposing heavy penalties on drug makers who boost their prices beyond inflation in the private insurance market. Those were the bill’s main protection prices for the roughly 180 million people whose health coverage comes from private insurance, either through work or self-purchased.
Other drug provisions were left intact, including giving Medicare the power to negotiate what it pays for drugs for its 64 million elderly beneficiaries, a longtime Democratic ambition. Penalties on manufacturers for exceeding inflation will apply to drugs sold to Medicare, and there is a $2,000 annual cap on drug costs and free vaccines for Medicare beneficiaries.
“The time is now to move forward with a big, bold package for the American people,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y. “This historic bill will reduce inflation, reduce costs, fight climate change. It’s time to move this nation forward.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in Kyiv, said Democrats were “misreading the outrage of the American people as a mandate for yet another reckless tax and spending spree.” He said Democrats “have already robbed American families once through inflation, and now their solution is to rob American families a second time.”
Saturday’s vote capped a stunning 10-day period that saw Democrats revive key elements of Biden’s seemingly dead agenda. In quick deals with the two most unpredictable Democratic senators — first conservative Joe Manchin of West Virginia and then Arizona centrist Kyrsten Sinema — Schumer put together a package that would give the party a leg up in its congressional elections. this autumn.
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 make the United States a world leader in clean energy.”
Assuming Democrats fight off an incessant “vote-a-rama” of amendments — many designed by Republicans to derail the measure — they should be able to advance the measure in the Senate.
“What’s the vote-a-rama going to be like? It’s going to be hell,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said of the upcoming GOP amendments. He said that by supporting the Democratic bill, Manchin and Sinema are “encouraging legislation that will make life more difficult for the average person” by driving up energy costs with tax increases and making it harder for companies to hire workers.
The bill offers spending and tax incentives favored by progressives to buy electric vehicles and improve the energy efficiency of buildings. But in a nod to Manchin, whose state is a top fossil fuel producer, there is also money to reduce coal plant carbon emissions and language requiring the administration to open more federal land and waters to oil extraction.
Expiring subsidies that help millions of people afford private insurance premiums will be extended for three years, and there is $4 billion to help Western states fight the drought. A new provision would create a $35 monthly cap on insulin, the expensive diabetes drug, for Medicare and private insurance patients starting next year. It seemed likely that the language could be weakened or removed during the debate.
Echoing Democrats’ calls for tax equality, there will be a new 15% minimum tax on some companies that earn more than $1 billion a year but pay far less than the current 21% corporate tax. Companies that buy back their own shares would be taxed at 1% on those transactions, after Sinema refused to back higher taxes on private equity firm executives and hedge fund managers. The IRS budget will be drawn to boost tax collections.
While the final cost of the bill is still being determined, in total it would spend nearly $400 billion over 10 years to slow climate change, which analysts say would be the nation’s largest investment in the effort, and billions more on health care . It would raise more than $700 billion in taxes and from government drug cost savings, leaving about $300 billion for deficit reduction over the next decade — a threshold compared to projected budget deficits of $16 trillion over that period.
Democrats are using special procedures that would allow them to pass the measure without having to achieve the 60-vote majority that legislation often needs in the Senate.
The lawmaker decides whether parts of the legislation should be withdrawn because they violate those rules, which include a requirement that the provisions be aimed primarily at the federal budget and not at enacting new policy.