Democrats clear first hurdle on healthcare, tax and climate bill

Senate Democrats on Saturday advanced their long-delayed healthcare, tax and climate bill following months of back-and-forth on whether the party would be able to pass major legislation addressing some of their progressive priorities before the midterm election.

The Senate voted along party lines, 50-50, to start debate on the measure, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie.

Democrats are passing the bill using a special parliamentary procedure called reconciliation, which doesn’t allow for a Republican filibuster.

Democrats, eager to tout the bill’s benefits on the campaign trail this fall, lauded it as historic.

“This is one of the most comprehensive and impactful bills Congress has seen in decades,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “It will reduce inflation. It will lower prescription drug costs. It will fight climate change. It will close tax loopholes and it will reduce the deficit. It will help every citizen in this country and make America a much better place.”

The bill would allow the federal government to begin to negotiate drug prices in Medicare — albeit slowly— and would create incentives and grants to combat the climate crisis, two major political priorities that Democrats are hoping to run on this fall.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which issues cost estimates of legislation, said Saturday it was still working on one due to last-minute changes. An analysis of an earlier version of the bill found it would decrease the deficit by $102 billion over a decade.

For congressional Democrats and President Biden, it would mark a welcome legislative bright spot.

Democrats have been scrambling in recent days to tie up the negotiations — work that continued into Saturday.

Because Democrats are enacting the bill through reconciliation, it has to be reviewed by a nonpartisan Senate official to confirm all elements of the legislation comply with Senate rules. That process has been underway for days and was largely done by midday Saturday.

While Democrats were able to keep most of their bill intact through that process, they had to change the way a cap on rising drug prices will be calculated. It is also unclear whether a $35 cap on copays for insulin will make it through the process.

After Saturday’s vote, lawmakers were expected to begin a lengthy series of votes on amendments to the bill, dubbed vote-a-rama. Under the reconciliation process, the minority party can offer unlimited amendments, and it typically takes the opportunity to propose politically contentious ideas designed to block the bill or, at minimum, force the majority to take politically unfavorable votes.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the process will be “like hell. They deserve this.”

“I’m hoping that we can come up with proposals that will make sense to a few of them and they’ll abandon this jihad they’re on,” he said Friday.

Republicans argue the bill will make inflation worse. “Democrats want to run through hundreds of billions of dollars in tax hikes and hundreds of billions of dollars in reckless spending,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Saturday.

The CBO estimated the bill would have a “negligible” impact on inflation this year. Democrats have cited other economic experts who say it will reduce inflation.

“This is fighting inflation,” Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.V.) said last weekend while touting the bill on “Face the Nation.” “This is all about the absolute horrible position that people are in now because of the inflation costs, whether it be gasoline, whether it be food pricing, whether it be energy pricing, and it’s around energy, mostly that’s driving [this] high inflation.”

If Democrats are able to stick together through the amendment series, they hope to give final passage to the bill as early as Sunday morning.

House leaders plan to bring members of that chamber back to Washington on Friday to vote on the bill. If approved, it would go to Biden’s desk for his signature.

Declared dead several times over the past year, the Democrats’ sweeping legislation was resurrected following secret talks between Schumer and Manchin, the most conservative Senate Democrat.

The bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, is much smaller than the original $3.5-trillion “Build Back Better” plan, which contained a slew of progressive policies such as universal prekindergarten and child care that Manchin said in December he would not support.

Once Manchin and Schumer cut a deal on a plan, attention turned to another frequent outlier in the Democratic ranks, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

She axed the bill’s tightening of a “carried interest” tax loophole that will benefit high-income investors, and she was expected to add new funding to combat drought, although those details are still undefined.

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