By ALAN FRAM and FARNOUSH AMIRI – Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — A divided Senate voted Saturday to begin debating the Democrats’ election-year economic bill, bolstering President Joe Biden’s sprawling collection of priorities on climate, energy, health and social security. taxes after his initial test as he begins to make his way through Congress.
In a preview of votes expected on a mountain of amendments, United Democrats pushed the legislation through the equally divided House 51-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking a tie and overcoming unanimous Republican opposition. The package, a scaled-down version of earlier multi-trillion-dollar measures that Democrats failed to advance, has become a partisan battleground over inflation, gas prices and other issues that , according to polls, are motivating voters.
The House, where Democrats have a slim majority, could give it final approval next Friday when lawmakers plan to return to Washington.
The vote came after the Senate congressman approved most of the Democrats’ revised 755-page bills. But Elizabeth MacDonough, the nonpartisan House rules arbiter, said Democrats needed to scrap a significant part of their plan to cut drug prices.
MacDonough said Democrats violated Senate budget rules by imposing stiff penalties on drugmakers who raised prices above inflation in the private insurance market. These were the bill’s main rate protections for the roughly 180 million people whose health coverage comes from private insurance, either through work or purchased on their own.
Other pharmaceutical provisions remained intact, including giving Medicare the power to negotiate what it pays for drugs for its 64 million elderly beneficiaries, a longtime Democratic aspiration. Penalties on manufacturers for overshooting inflation would apply to drugs sold to Medicare, and there is a $2,000 annual cap on free drug and vaccine costs for Medicare beneficiaries.
“Now is the time to move forward with a big, bold package for the American people,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y. “This landmark bill will reduce inflation, cut costs, fight climate change. It’s time to move this nation forward.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Democrats are “misinterpreting the outrage of the American people as a mandate for another reckless tax and spending spree.” He said Democrats “have already robbed American families once through inflation and now their solution is to rob American families a second time.”
Saturday’s vote capped a startling 10-day stretch that saw Democrats resuscitate key pieces of Biden’s agenda that seemed dead. In quick deals with the Democrats’ two most unpredictable senators — first conservative Joe Manchin of West Virginia and then Arizona centrist Kyrsten Sinema — Schumer pulled together a package that would give the party an election feat at the Congress this fall.
A White House statement said the legislation “would help address today’s most pressing economic challenges, strengthen our economy for decades to come, and position the United States as the world leader in clean energy”.
Assuming Democrats fight an unbroken “vote-a-rama” of amendments — many of which are designed by Republicans to derail the measure — they should be able to force the measure through the Senate.
“What will the vote-a-rama look like? It will be like hell,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, said of the approaching GOP amendments. He said that by supporting the Democratic bill, Manchin and Sinema are “strengthening legislation that will make life harder for the average person” by forcing energy costs with tax increases and making it harder for businesses to hire workers.
The bill offers spending and tax incentives favored by progressives to buy electric vehicles and make buildings more energy efficient. But to salute Manchin, whose state is a leading producer of fossil fuels, there is also money to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants and language compelling the government to open up more land and of federal waters to oil drilling.
The expiration of subsidies that help millions pay private insurance premiums would be extended by three years, and $4 billion is earmarked to help Western states fight drought. A new provision would create a $35 monthly cap on insulin, the expensive diabetes drug, for Medicare and private insurance patients starting next year. It seemed possible that the language would be weakened or suppressed during the debate.
Reflecting Democrats’ calls for tax fairness, there would be a new 15% minimum tax on certain corporations that earn more than $1 billion a year but pay far less than the current 21% corporate tax. . Companies buying back their own shares would be taxed 1% for those transactions, traded after Sinema refused to back higher taxes for private equity firm executives and hedge fund managers. The IRS budget would be inflated to strengthen its tax collections.
While the final costs of the bill are still being determined, overall it would spend nearly $400 billion over 10 years to slow climate change, which analysts say would be the nation’s biggest investment in this. effort, and billions more for health care. This would raise more than $700 billion in taxes and government drug cost savings, leaving about $300 billion for deficit reduction over the next decade – a hit from the 16,000 billions of dollars in projected budget deficits for this period.
Democrats are using special procedures that would allow them to pass the measure without having to achieve the 60-vote majority that legislation often needs in the Senate.
The parliamentarian decides whether parts of the legislation should be dropped for violating these rules, which include the requirement that the provisions are intended primarily to affect the federal budget, not to impose new policy.
Associated Press writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report.
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