WASHINGTON — A divided Senate took a crucial step towards approving Democrats’ plan to fight climate change, cut health care costs and raise taxes on big business on Saturday, with a test vote that paved the way for the enactment of an important piece of President Biden’s domestic policy. agenda in the next few days.
The measure advanced on a 51-50 party line vote, with all Republicans opposed and Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie.
The action suggested that Democrats, after more than a year of infighting and painstaking negotiations, had finally united behind legislation that would provide hundreds of billions of dollars for climate and energy programs, expand subsidies for the Affordable Care Act and would create a new federal initiative to reduce the cost of prescription drugs, especially for older Americans.
Much of the 755-page legislation would be paid for by tax increases, which Democrats say are aimed at making the tax code fairer.
The vote put the bill on track to pass the Senate as early as Sunday, with the House expected to give its approval by the end of the week. It would give Mr Biden a major boost at a time when his popularity is waning, and it would give Democrats a victory ahead of the midterm elections in November in which their congressional majorities hang in the balance.
“I think this legislation is long overdue and critically important,” Ms Harris said after casting her vote. “It’s going to reduce costs for American families.”
The hard-won deal, which includes the largest investment in history to address global warming, came after a series of intense negotiations with two leading Democratic backers, Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia. and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
Just weeks ago, Mr. Manchin, a conservative Democrat from a red state, said he could not agree to include climate, energy and tax measures in the domestic policy plan this summer because he feared it would exacerbate inflation. But he and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, stunned lawmakers from both parties late last month when they learned they had quietly returned to the negotiating table and struck a deal that included those proposals.
And on Thursday, Ms Sinema announced she too would move forward after winning concessions, including removing a provision that would have reduced a tax break allowing private equity executives and hedge fund managers to pay taxes. significantly lower on certain incomes than other taxpayers. do.
What’s in the Democrats’ climate and tax bill
A new proposal. The $369 billion climate and fiscal package that Senate Democrats proposed in July could have far-reaching effects on the environment and the economy. Here are some of the key provisions:
“The bill, when passed, will achieve all of our goals: fight climate change, reduce health care costs, close tax loopholes abused by the wealthy, and reduce the deficit,” Schumer told the Senate. “This is a major victory for the American people and a sad commentary on the Republican Party as it actively fights cost-cutting provisions for the American family.”
Democrats were rushing the bill through Congress under the murky budget process known as reconciliation, which protects certain tax and spending measures from a filibuster but also strictly limits what can be included.
Republicans remain unanimously opposed to the measure and have worked feverishly to derail it, angered by the resurgence of a plan they thought was dead. Blinded by the agreement between Mr. Schumer and Mr. Manchin, they hastened to attack the bill as an abomination of big spending and tax increases that will exacerbate inflation and hurt the economy to a precarious time.
“Democrats are misinterpreting the outrage of the American people as a mandate for yet another – yet another – reckless fiscal and spending spree,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Minority Leader.
He condemned a “tidal wave of interference from Washington” that he said would result from the pharmacare plan, which he said would bring “a buzz to the research and development behind new treatments and life-saving medical remedies”.
But Democrats rebranded the transformative cradle-to-grave social safety net and climate plan they once called “Building Back Better” as the Cut Inflation Act. Operating with a razor-thin Senate majority that gave their most conservative members a strong sway over the measure, Democrats dropped hundreds of billions of dollars in proposed spending on national programs, as well as numerous tax hikes. they had offered to pay. .
Outside estimates indicated that the measure would not result in a huge increase in federal spending or impose substantial tax hikes outside of large corporations, and it should reduce the federal budget deficit by the end of the decade. .
That didn’t stop Republicans from saying it would be disastrous for the economy and for Americans. Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, called it the “Manchin-Schumer tax hike of 2022.”
Republicans have spent much of the past week trying to find ways to slow down or block the legislation, arguing that it violates reconciliation rules. (They refrained, however, from forcing Senate clerks to read the bill aloud, after a similar maneuver last year caused an outcry.)
Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate parliamentarian, and her team worked into the early hours of Saturday morning to determine whether elements of the bill violated those rules, which require every provision to have a direct effect on federal spending or revenue. . Early Saturday, she called on Democrats to narrow the scope of a proposal to prevent drug price increases from outpacing inflation, saying a proposed discount could only apply to drugs purchased by Medicare. , and not by private insurers.
But top Democrats announced most legislation remains intact after MacDonough’s review, including a plan to allow Medicare to directly negotiate the price of prescription drugs for the first time, restrictions on new tax breaks for electric vehicles and charges to reduce excessive prices. emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas typically emitted by oil and gas leaks.
In a last-ditch effort to frustrate the measure, Republicans were set as early as Saturday night to begin forcing a series of quick votes on politically toxic amendments — an hour-long ritual known as the vote-a-rama that reconciliation measures must survive in order to be approved. In the equally divided Senate, the 50 members of the Democratic caucus will have to remain united to ward off the changes proposed by the Republicans and win the final passage.
“What will the vote-a-rama look like? It will be like hell,” swore Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. Of Democrats, he said, “They deserve this.”
Democrats, too, could still modify the bill. They are expected to essentially challenge Republicans to withdraw a proposal to cap the cost of insulin for all patients, a popular measure that violates budget rules because it would not directly affect federal spending.
And at least one member of the Democratic caucus, Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, has said he plans to force a vote on amendments to improve the legislation.
“It’s a totally inadequate bill, but it begins, to some extent, to address the existential threat to the planet,” Sanders said in an interview Friday. “I’m disappointed.”
Most Democrats, however, were trying to rally their colleagues to stand united against any amendments — including those that might be proposed by other members of their caucus — to preserve the delicate consensus around the bill and its s ensure that it could become law.
“What matters to me is that we get to 50 votes, okay, at the end, and that means we have to keep this deal going,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, told reporters. “What matters is that we made a deal, and we have to keep it intact.”
Lisa Friedman, Stephanie Lai and Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed report.