WASHINGTON — Democrats drove their election-year economic package toward Senate approval early Sunday, debating a measure with less ambition than President Joe Biden’s original domestic vision but that touches deep-rooted party dreams of slowing global warming, moderating pharmaceutical costs and taxing immense corporations.
Debate began Saturday and by early Sunday morning, Democrats had swatted down over a dozen Republican amendments designed to torpedo the legislation or create campaign ads attacking Democratic senators. Despite unanimous GOP opposition, Democratic unity in the 50-50 chamber — buttressed by Vice President Kamala Harris' tiebreaking vote — suggested the party was on track for a morale-boosting victory three months from elections when congressional control is at stake.
“I think it's gonna pass," Biden told reporters as he left the White House early Sunday to go to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, ending his COVID-19 isolation. The House seemed on track to provide final congressional approval when it returns briefly from summer recess on Friday.
“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," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.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 are struggling to keep from plummeting into recession. They said the bill's business taxes would hurt job creation and force prices skyward, making it harder for people to cope with the nation's worst inflation since the 1980s.
“Democrats have already robbed American families once through inflation, and now their solution is to rob American families a second time," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., argued. He said spending and tax increases in the legislation would eliminate jobs while having insignificant impact on inflation and climate change.
Nonpartisan analysts have said Democrats' “Inflation Reduction Act” would have a minor effect on surging consumer prices. The bill is barely more than one-tenth the size of Biden's initial 10-year, $3.5 trillion rainbow of progressive aspirations and abandons its proposals for universal preschool, paid family leave and expanded child care aid.
Even so, the new measure gives Democrats a campaign-season showcase for action on coveted goals. It includes the largest ever federal effort on climate change — close to $400 billion — hands Medicare the power to negotiate pharmaceutical prices and extends expiring subsidies that help 13 million people afford health insurance.
Biden’s original measure collapsed after conservative Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., opposed it, saying it was too costly and would fuel inflation.
In an ordeal imposed on all budget bills like this one, the Senate had to endure an overnight “vote-a-rama” of rapid-fire amendments. Each tested Democrats' ability to hold together a compromise negotiated by Schumer, progressives, Manchin and the inscrutable centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.
Progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., offered amendments to further expand the legislation's health benefits, and those efforts were defeated. Most votes were forced by Republicans and many were designed to make Democrats look soft on U.S.-Mexico border security and gasoline and energy costs, and like bullies for wanting to strengthen IRS tax law enforcement.
Before debate began Saturday, the bill's prescription drug price curbs were diluted by the Senate's nonpartisan parliamentarian. Elizabeth MacDonough, who referees questions about the chamber's procedures, said a provision should fall that would impose costly penalties on drug makers whose price increases for private insurers exceed inflation.
It was the bill's chief protection for the 180 million people with private health coverage they get through work or purchase themselves. Under special procedures that will let Democrats pass their bill by simple majority without the usual 60-vote margin, its provisions must be focused more on dollar-and-cents budget numbers than policy changes.
But the thrust of their pharmaceutical price language remained. That included letting Medicare negotiate what it pays for drugs for its 64 million elderly recipients, penalizing manufacturers for exceeding inflation for pharmaceuticals sold to Medicare and limiting beneficiaries out-of-pocket drug costs to $2,000 annually.
The bill also caps patients' costs for insulin, the expensive diabetes medication, at $35 monthly.
The measure's final costs were being recalculated to reflect late changes, but overall it would raise more than $700 billion over a decade. The money would come from a 15% minimum tax on a handful of corporations with yearly profits above $1 billion, a 1% tax on companies that repurchase their own stock, bolstered 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 tax rates for their earnings. She also joined with other Western senators to win $4 billion to combat the region's drought.
It was on the energy and environment side that compromise was most evident between progressives and Manchin, a champion of fossil fuels and his state's coal industry.
Clean energy would be fostered with tax credits for buying electric vehicles and manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines. There would be home energy rebates, funds for constructing factories building clean energy technology and money to promote climate-friendly farm 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 waters. Party leaders also promised to push separate legislation this fall to accelerate permits for energy projects, which Manchin wants to include a nearly completed natural gas pipeline in his state.