After weeks of negotiations to revive the core of their election-year agenda, Senate Democrats appear to be on the brink of passing a spending bill which would attempt to tackle climate change, the high cost of prescription drugs and lower the deficit by roughly $300 billion.
Opening the Senate floor for a rare Saturday session, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said, “No matter how long it takes, the Senate is going to stay in session to finish this bill.”
The Senate voted along party lines to begin formal debate on the floor Saturday evening. After debate concludes, senators can introduce an unlimited number of amendments in what’s known as a “vote-a-rama.” Also allowed during vote-a-rama is a call to have the entire text of the bill, which is roughly 700 pages, read aloud.
The process is expected to stretch into Sunday before a vote on final passage.
Three weeks ago, the bill was all but dead when Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., withheld his support, citing concerns about adding to historically high inflation.
But just last week, he and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced an agreement, much to the surprise of others in the Senate. Manchin’s concerns about inflation were placated by, among others, former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, a Democrat who has previously been a critic of how his party has handled inflation.
Summers and other economists have argued the bill will tamp down inflation, but the Congressional Budget Office estimates that it will have negligible impact on prices in the near-term.
The legislation is a significant step forward for President Biden’s domestic agenda
“This bill is a gamechanger for working families and our economy,” Biden said at an event at the White House Friday. “I look forward to the Senate taking up this legislation and passing it as soon as possible.”
Republicans are united against the bill, arguing that the spending in it will make inflation worse and that the health provisions will hamper pharmaceutical innovation.
“Democrats have decided their first economic disaster justifies a second economic disaster. The working people of this country feel very differently,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on Saturday, but there is little his conference can do to stop the legislation.
The bill is getting passed through budget reconciliation, which allows Democrats to pass the bill with a simple majority in the evenly-divided chamber and avoid the threat of a Republican filibuster that applies to most legislation.
It also means each section of the bill needs to be reviewed by the Senate parliamentarian to make sure it is actually legislation that will primarily impact the budget. This review process is often referred to as the “Byrd Bath,” named after the late West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd.
Democrats said on Saturday that the parliamentarian approved key elements of the bill on prescription drug pricing and clean energy. One element that would compel drug companies to offer rebates if prescription prices outpaced inflation was limited in the process so that it would apply to patients on medicare but not private insurance. Still, Schumer said the bill remains mostly intact and “can win the support of all 50 Democrats.”
Democrats appear to have all 50 votes in their conference after Sinema agreement
Late Thursday night, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema said she would “move forward” with the legislation; she was the last holdout on the bill and her support essentially means the Senate has all 50 Democratic votes needed to pass the bill.
To get on board, Sinema wanted the section of the bill that narrowed the carried interest tax loophole to be removed. The measure impacts how private equity is taxed and Democrats say it would have brought in $14 billion.
What Sinema wanted to add, though, brings in more revenue. It’s a 1% excise tax on stock buybacks — Schumer said Friday he and progressive Democrats were excited about that aspect of the bill, which he says brings in roughly $74 billion.
“What we added excites me and I think it excites all Democrats and particularly progressives,” Schumer said at a press conference Friday. “I hate stock buybacks. I think they’re one of the most self-serving things that corporate America does.”
Also added in is about $4 billion in drought resiliency put forward by Senators Catherine Cortez-Masto, D-Nev., Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo. Sinema had also called for this addition in the bill.
There is still criticism of the bill coming from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who has argued the legislation doesn’t do enough for working class Americans by not increasing the minimum wage, making child care more affordable or tackling the student debt crisis.
He took to the Senate floor Wednesday and called it the “so-called” Inflation Reduction Act.
“As currently written, this is an extremely modest piece of legislation that does virtually nothing to address the enormous crises that working families all across this country are facing today,” he said.
He added that he plans to bring up his concerns during the amendment process on the floor over the weekend, but a scenario in which Sanders’ concerns prevent him from voting for the bill altogether is highly unlikely.
What could be another hurdle for the bill is opposition from progressives in the House, which is set to return to consider the legislation late next week.
It caps off a busy — and successful — stretch for Biden’s domestic agenda
In the past few weeks, the Senate has voted on a bill to expand health services for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, a semiconductor bill, and a measure to allow Finland and Sweden into NATO — and all of those votes have been bipartisan.
Schumer, though, has made it clear that Senate Democrats will also go it alone if they have to, which is what they’re doing with this bill. No Republican will vote for the legislation, but with a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Harris, Democrats can still cinch a victory.
It caps off a busy week on Capitol Hill and also sets up a busy week for the president, who already has a slew of bills to sign into law next week.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Today is a big day for Senate Democrats as they begin debate over their bill to address climate change. It was once the centerpiece of their party’s agenda, but it has shrunk and now has as much to do with health care and deficit reduction as it does providing incentives for renewable energy. All 50 members of the Democratic Conference have signaled support, but it’s still far from a done deal. We’re now joined by NPR political reporter Deepa Shivaram.
Deepa, thanks very much for being with us.
DEEPA SHIVARAM, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.
SIMON: What’s happening with the bill today? How soon could it get passed?
SHIVARAM: Yeah. So this afternoon, Chuck Schumer, who’s the majority leader, is planning to introduce the bill on the floor. And because it’s getting passed through what’s called a budget reconciliation process, there are some extra rules added. Both sides get up to 20 hours of debate to talk about the legislation. That’s 20 hours split evenly between both parties. And then they move into what’s known as vote-a-rama. This is where senators can introduce an unlimited number of amendments to the bill, and it can take hours. The Democrats are likely to yield back most of their debate time. So we’re really just watching to see how long Republicans want to drag this out into the weekend.
SIMON: Getting everybody in the Democratic Conference to agree was a long and difficult process. How did it finally come about?
SHIVARAM: So that was the back and forth this past week, whether or not Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema would get on board with the bill. On Thursday night, she announced she would it, quote, “move forward with it after a few changes were made.” And the first change was that she wanted the part of the bill that narrowed what’s called the carried interest tax loophole to be removed. That part essentially changed the way private equity income is taxed. And what Sinema wanted added was an excise tax on stock buybacks. She also wanted funding for drought resiliency, which other senators have also called for. But Sinema isn’t the only one here who has expressed reservations.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said this week that he doesn’t believe the bill does enough to tackle issues that working-class Americans are facing. He says there’s nothing in the bill for increasing the minimum wage or making child care more affordable or eliminating student debt. And Sanders isn’t likely to block the bill from passing, but he has said he’ll introduce a number of amendments on the floor that would bring up these concerns. And when the bill goes to the House next week, progressive members there might also push back, but they’ve been mostly quiet so far.
SIMON: This is potentially a big win for Democrats in, obviously, a year of midterm elections. What has President Biden said so far?
SHIVARAM: Yeah. It is a pretty big portion of his domestic agenda that’s set to pass here. So it’s looking like a good week for President Biden. He spoke a little bit about the bill at an event at the White House yesterday. Take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: In short, this bill is a game changer for working families and our economy. I look forward to the Senate taking up this legislation and passing it as soon as possible.
SHIVARAM: And this isn’t the only part of Biden’s agenda that’s moved forward in recent days. He’s signing into law gun control legislation prompted by recent mass shootings, a bill on semiconductors that boosts American manufacturers and a bill on veterans benefits that provides aid to veterans exposed to toxins. And it’s worth adding here that all of these measures had bipartisan support. There’s a lot of momentum here for Biden already. And the Inflation Reduction Act is another point of success. For Democrats who are facing an uphill midterm election in just a few months, like you mentioned, this is a week they’ll keep pointing back to.
SIMON: NPR’s Deepa Shivaram.
Thanks so much.
SHIVARAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.