Dems press Biden climate, health priorities against Senate OK

Democrats ran their election-year economic package toward Senate approval early Sunday, debating a measure that is less ambitious than President Joe Biden’s original domestic goals but touches on deep-rooted party dreams of slowing global warming, moderating drug costs and taxing huge corporations.

The legislation passed its first test in the evenly divided chamber when Democrats broke past unanimous Republican opposition and voted to begin debate 51-50, thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote. The House planned to return Friday to vote on what Democrats hope will be final congressional approval.

“It will reduce inflation. It will reduce the cost of prescription drugs. It will combat climate change. It will close tax loopholes and it will reduce and reduce the deficit,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said of the package. “It will help every citizen of this country and make America a much better place.”

Republicans said the measure would undermine an economy that policymakers are struggling to avoid falling into recession. They said the bill’s corporate 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.

“Democrats have already robbed American families once through inflation, and now their solution is to rob American families one more time,” argued Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. He said spending and tax increases in the legislation would eliminate jobs while having a negligible impact on inflation and climate change.

Nonpartisan analysts have said the Democrats’ inflation-reduction bill will have little impact on rising consumer prices. The bill is barely more than a tenth the size of Biden’s first 10-year $3.5 trillion rainbow of progressive dreams, and the new package left out universal preschool, paid family leave and expanded child care.

Still, the measure gives Democrats a campaign-season showcase for action on coveted goals. It includes the largest federal effort ever on climate change — close to $400 billion — and would give Medicare the power to negotiate pharmaceutical prices and extend expiring subsidies that help 13 million Americans afford health insurance.

Biden’s original measure collapsed after conservative Sen. Joe Manchin, DW.Va., opposed it, saying it was too costly and would lead to inflation.

In an ordeal imposed on all budget bills like this one, the Senate descended into an hours-long “vote-a-rama” of rapid amendments. Each tested Democrats’ ability to hold together a compromise brokered by Schumer, progressives, Manchin and inscrutable centrist Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.

Progressive Sen. Bernie Sander, I-Vt., offered amendments to further expand the legislation’s health benefits, and they were defeated. But most proposed changes were crafted by Republicans to unravel the bill or force Democrats to vote on dangerous political terrain.

One GOP proposal would have forced the Biden administration to continue Trump-era restrictions that cited the pandemic to slow the flow of migrants across the border in the Southwest.

Earlier this year, Democrats facing tough re-election backed such an extension, forcing the party to drop its push for Covid-19 spending as Republicans merged the two issues. This time, with their far bigger economic legislation on the line and elections looming, Democrats rallied against the border controls.

Other GOP amendments would have required more gas and oil leasing on federal lands and blocked a renewal of a tax on oil that helps fund toxic waste cleanup. All were rejected on party-line votes. Republicans accused Democrats of being soft on border security and opening the door to higher energy and gas costs.

Before debate began Saturday, the bill’s price caps on prescription drugs were watered down by Senate partisan lawmakers. Elizabeth MacDonough, who refers questions about the chamber’s procedures, said a provision should be dropped that would impose costly penalties on drugmakers if price increases for private insurers exceed inflation.

It was the bill’s main protection for the 180 million people with private health coverage through work or that they buy themselves. Under special procedures that would allow Democrats to pass their bill with a simple majority without the usual 60-vote margin, the provisions must focus more on policy than dollars-and-cents budget changes.

But the thrust of their pharmaceutical pricing language remained. That included letting Medicare negotiate what it pays for drugs for its 64 million elderly beneficiaries, penalizing manufacturers for exceeding inflation for drugs sold to Medicare and capping beneficiaries’ out-of-pocket drug costs at $2,000 annually.

The bill also caps patients’ costs for insulin, the diabetes drug, at $35 monthly.

The measure’s final costs were recalculated to reflect late changes, but overall it would raise more than $700 billion over a decade. The funding will come from a minimum tax of 15% on a handful of companies with annual profits above $1 billion; a 1% tax on companies buying back their own shares increased tax collections from the IRS and government savings from lower drug costs.

Sinema forced Democrats to drop a plan to prevent wealthy hedge fund managers from paying less than individual tax rates on their earnings. She also joined with other western senators to win $4 billion to fight the region’s terrible drought.

It was on the energy and environmental side that the Democratic compromise was most evident between progressives and Manchin, a champion of fossil fuels and the state’s coal industry.

Efforts to promote clean energy will be strengthened with tax credits for the purchase of electric vehicles and the production of solar panels and wind turbines. There will be energy rebates for the home, funds to build factories that build clean energy technology and money to promote climate-friendly farm practices and reduce pollution in minority communities.

Manchin won billions to help power plants reduce carbon emissions plus language calling for more public auctions for oil drilling on federal land and waters. Party leaders also vowed to push separate legislation this fall to speed up permits for energy projects, which Manchin wants to include a nearly completed natural gas pipeline in his state.

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