Democrats Push Biden Climate, Health Priorities Towards Senate OK

Democrats pushed their election-year economic package toward Senate approval early Sunday, debating a measure less ambitious than President Joe Biden’s original domestic goals but hitting deep-seated party dreams of slowing down the global warming, moderating pharmaceutical costs and taxing huge corporations.

The legislation passed its first test in the evenly divided chamber when Democrats burst past unanimous Republican opposition and voted to start 51-50, thanks to the casting vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. The House was scheduled 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 fight climate change. It will close the tax loopholes and reduce and reduce the deficit,” Senate Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., said of the package. “It will help every citizen in this country and make America a much better place.”

Republicans said the measure would undermine an economy that policymakers struggle to avoid sliding into recession. They said the bill’s business taxes would hurt job creation and push prices up, making it harder for people to cope with the country’s worst inflation since the 1980s.

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

Unbiased analysts have said the Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act would have a small impact on rising consumer prices. The bill is barely more than a tenth the size of Biden’s initial 10-year, $3.5 trillion rainbow of progressive dreams, and the new package left universal kindergarten, paid family leave, and expanded child care.

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

Biden’s original measure collapsed after Conservative Senator Joe Manchin, DW.Va., opposed it, saying it was too expensive and would fuel inflation.

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

Progressive Senator Bernie Sander, I-Vt., offered amendments to further extend the health benefits of the legislation, and they were rejected. But most of the proposed changes were devised by Republicans to unravel the bill or force Democrats to vote in dangerous political territory.

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

Earlier this year, Democrats facing tough re-elections supported such an extension, forcing the party to drop its push on COVID-19 spending as Republicans merged the two issues. This time, with their much larger economic legislation at stake and elections approaching, Democrats rose up against border controls.

Other GOP amendments would have demanded more gas and oil leases on federal lands and blocked an extension of an oil fee 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 the debate started on Saturday, price restrictions on prescription drugs were relaxed by the impartial Senate MP. Answering questions about the chamber’s proceedings, Elizabeth MacDonough said a provision should be dropped that would impose costly penalties on drug makers whose price increases for private insurers exceed inflation.

It was the bill’s main protection for the 180 million people who have private health insurance through work or who buy it themselves. Under special procedures that allow Democrats to pass their bill by a simple majority without the usual margin of 60 votes, its provisions should focus more on policy than budget changes in dollars and cents.

But the thrust of their language for pharmaceutical prices remained. That included letting Medicare negotiate what it pays for drugs for its 64 million elderly recipients, punishing manufacturers for exceeding inflation for drugs sold to Medicare, and limiting beneficiaries’ out-of-pocket drug costs to $2,000 per year.

The bill also caps patients’ costs for insulin, the diabetes medication, to $35 per month.

The final cost of the measure was recalculated to reflect the late changes, but in total it would bring in more than $700 billion in a decade. Funding would come from a 15% minimum tax on a handful of companies with annual profits of more than $1 billion; a 1% tax on companies buying back their own shares, increased IRS tax collections, 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 income taxes on their earnings. She also joined other Western senators in winning $4 billion to fight the region’s horrific drought.

On the energy and environmental side, the Democrats’ compromise was most apparent between progressives and Manchin, a champion of fossil fuels and his state’s coal industry.

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

Manchin won billions to help power plants lower carbon emissions, plus language requiring more government auctions for oil drilling on federal land and water. Party leaders also pledged to pass separate legislation this fall to speed up permits for energy projects, with Manchin looking to include a nearly completed natural gas pipeline in his state.

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