Democrats pushed their election-year economic package toward Senate approval early Sunday, debating a measure less ambitious than Joe Biden’s original national vision but touching on deep-rooted party dreams to curb global warming, moderate pharmaceutical costs and tax huge corporations.
The debate began Saturday and by sunrise Sunday, Democrats had repressed a dozen Republican efforts to torpedo the legislation, with no clear end in sight.
Despite unanimous GOP opposition, the 50-50 Democratic unity in the chamber, bolstered by Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote, suggested the party was on track for a morale-boosting victory three months from elections when control of Congress is at stake.
Because Democrats are using the reconciliation process to advance the bill, they only need a simple majority to pass the proposal, allowing them to avoid a Republican filibuster.
The House was scheduled to briefly return from summer recess on Friday for what Democrats hope will be final congressional approval.
“It’s going to reduce inflation. It’s going to lower prescription drug costs. It’s going to fight climate change. It’s going to close tax loopholes and reduce and reduce the deficit,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said. “It will help all the citizens of this country and make America a much better place.”
But Democrats’ decision to use reconciliation to pass their spending package somewhat limited what Democrats could include in their bill. The Senate lawmaker ruled Saturday that a key health care provision, which would have put inflation-related limits on companies’ ability to raise prescription drug prices for private insurance plans, violated conciliation rules.
It was the bill’s main protection for the 180 million people with private health coverage they get through work or purchase. Under special procedures that will allow Democrats to pass their bill by a simple majority without the usual 60-vote margin, its provisions must focus more on dollars-and-cents budget numbers than policy changes.
Another proposal to cap insulin costs in the private insurance market at $35 a month was also expected to be cut from the bill, after Republicans indicated they would file a motion to argue the provision was at odds with the reconciliation procedure.
Republicans said the overall measure undermines an economy that policymakers are struggling to prevent from falling into recession. They said the bill’s business taxes would hurt job creation and force prices skyward, making it harder for people to cope with the nation’s worst inflation since the 1980s.
Nonpartisan analysts have said the Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act would have a smaller effect on rising consumer prices. The bill’s spending is barely more than a tenth of Biden’s initial 10-year, $3.5 trillion rainbow of progressive aspirations and abandons his proposals for universal preschool, leave paid family member and extended child care allowance.
Progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders took to the Senate floor Saturday night to complain that the compromise legislation wouldn’t do enough to help American workers struggling under the weight of record inflation.
“This legislation does not address any of their needs,” Sanders said. “This legislation does not address the reality that we have more income and wealth inequality today than at any time in the last hundred years.”
Still, the new measure gives Democrats a campaign-season showcase for action on coveted goals. It includes the largest federal effort on climate change, nearly $400 billion, gives Medicare the power to negotiate drug prices and extends expiring subsidies that help 13 million people pay for health insurance.
Biden’s original measure collapsed after conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin opposed it, saying it was too costly and would fuel inflation.
In an ordeal imposed on all budget bills like this one, the Senate fell into a “vote-a-rama” of a few hours of quick amendments. Each tested the ability of Democrats to hold together a compromise brokered by Schumer, progressives, Manchin and the inscrutable centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
Despite efforts by Republicans to force Democrats to take awkward votes on amendments to the bill, Manchin remained adamant that he would not allow the legislation to be significantly changed.
“The Inflation Reduction Act is the product of years of bipartisan conversations about the most impactful ways to produce more energy domestically, lower energy and health care costs and pay down our debt,” Manchin said Saturday. “Despite that, my [Republican] friends have made it clear that they are totally unwilling to support this bill under any conditions. None of his amendments would change that. For that reason, I will be voting to protect the integrity of the IRA regardless of the substance of its bogus amendments.”
The final compromise included letting Medicare negotiate what it pays for drugs for its 64 million seniors, penalizing manufacturers for exceeding inflation on drugs sold to Medicare and capping beneficiaries’ out-of-pocket costs at $2,000 a year.
Final costs of the measure were being recalculated to reflect late changes, but overall it would raise more than $700 billion over a decade. The money would come from a minimum tax of 15% on a handful of corporations with annual profits above $1 billion, a 1% tax on companies that buy back their own shares, strengthen tax collection from the IRS and government savings from lower drug costs.
Sinema forced Democrats to abandon a plan to prevent wealthy hedge fund managers from paying less than individual income tax rates on their earnings. He also joined with other Western senators to win $4 billion to fight the region’s drought.
It was on the energy and environment side where the compromise was most evident between progressives and Manchin, a supporter of fossil fuels and his state’s coal industry.
Clean energy would be encouraged with tax credits for the purchase of electric vehicles and the manufacture of solar panels and wind turbines. There would be energy rebates to households, funds to build factories that build clean energy technology, and money to promote climate-friendly agricultural practices and reduce pollution in minority communities.
Manchin won billions to help power plants reduce carbon emissions and language requiring more government auctions for oil drilling on federal lands and waters. Party leaders also pledged to push separate legislation this fall to speed up permitting for energy projects, which Manchin wants to include a nearly completed natural gas pipeline in his state.