Senate Democrats approve big Biden deal; House is to vote next

washington • Democrats pushed their election-year economic package for passage by the Senate on Sunday, a hard-fought compromise that is less ambitious than President Joe Biden’s original domestic policy vision, but one that still fulfills deep-rooted party goals, namely slowing down global warming, lowering drug costs and taxing giant corporations.

The estimated $740 billion package goes alongside the House of Representatives, where lawmakers are poised to meet Biden’s priorities, a stunning reversal of what seemed lost and doomed and suddenly returned to political life. Democrats remained united, 51-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the casting vote.

“It’s been a long, hard, and winding road, but finally, finally, we’ve arrived,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., said ahead of the final votes.

“The Senate makes history. I am confident that the Anti-Inflation Act will endure as one of the defining pieces of legislation of the 21st century.”

The senators participated in a round-the-clock electoral marathon that began Saturday and continued late Sunday afternoon. Democrats defeated about three dozen Republican amendments aimed at torpedoing the legislation. Faced with unanimous GOP opposition, the Democratic Party held unity in the 50-50 chamber and kept the party on course for a morale-boosting victory three months after the election, when control of Congress is at stake.

“I think it will pass,” Biden told reporters as he left the White House early Sunday to go to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, to end his COVID-19 isolation. The House appeared likely to give final congressional approval when it briefly returns from summer recess on Friday.

The bill ran into trouble at midday over objections to the new 15% minimum tax on companies that disliked private equity firms and other industries, forcing last-minute changes.

Despite the current setback, the Inflation Reduction Act gives Democrats a showcase for action on coveted targets during the campaign season. It includes the largest federal effort on climate change to date — nearly $400 billion — caps the cost of out-of-pocket medications for seniors on Medicare to $2,000 a year and extends expiring subsidies that are helping 13 million people to recover to provide health insurance. The increase in corporate taxes will pay for the entire package, with around $300 billion in additional revenue for deficit reduction.

A little over a tenth the size of Biden’s initial 10-year rainbow of $3.5 trillion of progressive endeavors in his Build Back Better initiative, the new package scraps previous proposals for universal preschool, paid family leave and expanded childcare assistance. This plan collapsed after Conservative Senator Joe. Manchin, DW.Va., opposed it, saying it was too costly and would fuel inflation.

Impartial analysts have said the Inflation Reduction Act would have little impact on rising consumer prices.

Republicans said the measure would undermine an economy that policymakers are struggling to keep from sliding into a recession. They said the bill’s corporate taxes would hurt job creation and push up prices, making it harder for people to cope with the country’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,” argued Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. He said spending and tax hikes in legislation would destroy jobs while having insignificant impacts on inflation and climate change.

In an ordeal imposed on all budget bills like this one, the Senate endured an overnight “vote-a-rama” of rapid-fire amendments. Each tested the Democrats’ ability to hold together a compromise negotiated by Schumer, progressives, Manchin and the inscrutable centrist Senator Kyrsten Sinema of D-Ariz.

Progressive Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., offered amendments to further expand the legislation’s health benefits, and those efforts were thwarted. Most of the votes were coerced by Republicans, and many were designed to make Democrats look soft on U.S.-Mexico border security and gas and energy costs, and make them look like thugs for blocking enforcement of the wanted to strengthen IRS tax legislation.

Before the debate began on Saturday, prescription drug price limits were watered down by the Senate’s impartial lawmaker. Elizabeth MacDonough, who is answering questions about the chamber’s procedures, said a provision should be dropped that would impose costly penalties on drugmakers whose price increases for private insurers exceed inflation.

It was the bill’s main protection for the 180 million people with private health insurance, either through work or through purchasing it themselves. Under special procedures that allow Democrats to pass their bill by a simple majority without the usual 60-vote margin, its provisions must focus more on dollar-and-cent budget numbers than policy changes.

But the thrust of their pharmaceutical pricing language remained the same. These included letting Medicare negotiate what it pays for drugs for its 64 million elderly beneficiaries, penalizing manufacturers for exceeding inflation on drugs sold to Medicare, and capping beneficiaries’ drug costs at $2,000 a year.

The bill also limits Medicare patients’ bills for insulin, the expensive diabetes drug, to $35 a month. Democrats wanted to extend the $35 cap to private insurers, but they broke Senate rules. Most Republicans voted to remove it from the package, although in a show of the political potency of health care costs, seven GOP senators joined Democrats in trying to get it.

The final cost of the measure has been recalculated to reflect late changes, but overall it would bring in more than $700 billion over a decade. The money would come from a 15% minimum tax on a handful of companies with annual earnings over $1 billion, a 1% tax on companies that buy back their own stock, a boost in IRS tax revenue, and government savings from lower drug costs come.

Sinema forced Democrats to scrap a plan to prevent wealthy hedge fund managers from paying less than individual income tax rates on their earnings. She has also joined other western senators in a bid to raise $4 billion to help fight the region’s drought.

Several Democratic senators joined the GOP-led effort to exempt some companies from the new corporate tax minimum.

The package sticks to Biden’s promise not to levy taxes on those earning less than $400,000 a year.

On the energy and environmental side, the clearest compromise has been between the progressives and Manchin, a proponent of fossil fuels and his state’s coal industry.

Clean energy would be promoted through tax credits for buying electric vehicles and manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines. There would be rebates for home energy, funds to build factories to build clean energy technologies, and money to promote climate-friendly farming practices and reduce pollution in minority communities.

Manchin won billions to help power plants cut carbon emissions and called for more government auctions for oil drilling on state land and waters. Party leaders also pledged to push separate legislation this fall to speed up approvals for energy projects, to which Manchin plans to add a near-completed natural gas pipeline in his state. Senate Democrats approve big Biden deal; House is to vote next

Justin Scacco

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