Senate Democrats on Saturday moved their long-delayed health care, tax and climate bill forward after months of wrangling over whether the party could pass important legislation touching on some of their progressive priorities before the midterm elections.
The Senate voted along party lines, 50-50, to start debating the measure, and Vice President Kamala Harris broke the tie.
The Democrats pass the bill using a special parliamentary process called reconciliation that doesn’t allow filibusters from the Republicans.
Democrats, keen to tout the bill’s benefits on the campaign trail this fall, called it historic.
“This is one of the most comprehensive and influential bills Congress has seen in decades,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.). “It will bring down inflation. It will bring down the cost of prescription drugs. It will fight climate change. It will close tax loopholes and reduce the deficit. It will help every citizen of this country and make America a much better place.”
The bill would allow the federal government to start negotiating drug prices in Medicare – albeit slowly – and create stimulus and grants to fight the climate crisis, two major policy priorities that Democrats hope to leverage this fall.
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, which publishes cost estimates for the legislation, said Saturday it was still working on it due to last-minute changes. An analysis of an earlier version of the bill showed that it would cut the deficit by $102 billion over a decade.
For Congressional Democrats and President Biden, this would be a welcome bright spot in the legislative arena.
In recent days, Democrats have struggled to start negotiations, a job that continued until Saturday.
As the Democrats pass the bill by conciliation, it must be reviewed by a nonpartisan Senate official to confirm that all elements of the legislation comply with Senate rules. This process took several days and was mostly completed by Saturday afternoon.
While the Democrats were able to keep most of their bill through the process, they had to change the way they calculated the ceiling on drug price increases. It’s also unclear whether the cap on the $35 copay for insulin will survive.
After Saturday’s vote, lawmakers were expected to begin a lengthy series of votes on amendments to the bill, dubbed the “frame vote.” In the reconciliation process, the minority party can propose an unlimited number of amendments, and it usually takes the opportunity to propose politically controversial ideas designed to block the bill, or at least force the majority to vote politically unfavorably.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (RS.C.) said the process would be “like hell”. They deserve it.”
“I hope we can come up with proposals that will make sense to some of them and they will give up this jihad that they are participating in,” he said on Friday.
Republicans argue that the bill will exacerbate inflation. “Democrats want to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on tax increases and hundreds of billions of dollars on reckless spending,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) said Saturday.
The CBO estimates that the bill will have a “minor” impact on inflation this year. Democrats have cited other economic experts as saying it will bring down inflation.
“This is fighting inflation,” the senator said. Joe Manchin III (DW.V.) said last weekend while promoting the Face the Nation bill. “It’s all about the absolutely terrible situation that people are in right now because of inflationary costs, whether it’s gasoline, whether it’s food prices, whether it’s energy prices, and everything around energy, it’s basically driven by [this] high inflation.”
If Democrats can stick together through a series of amendments, they hope to pass the final bill as early as Sunday morning.
House leaders plan to return House members to Washington on Friday to vote on the bill. If approved, it will land on Biden’s desk for his signature.
Declared dead several times over the past year, sweeping Democratic legislation has been revived following secret negotiations between Schumer and Manchin, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate.
The bill to bring down inflation is much smaller than the original $3.5 trillion Rebuild Better plan, which contained many progressive measures such as universal preschool and childcare, which Manchin said in December he would not support.
Once Manchin and Schumer struck a deal on the plan, attention shifted to another often-dismissed Democrat: the senator. Kirsten Cinema from Arizona.
She supported tightening the “withholding interest” tax loophole in the bill that would benefit high-net-worth investors, and she was expected to add new drought-fighting funding, though those details have yet to be determined.