US Senate Democrats battle to pass $430-billion climate, drug bill

WASHINGTON, DC, USA – The US Senate began debating a Democratic bill on Saturday, August 6, to address key elements of President Joe Biden’s agenda, including addressing climate change, lowering the costs of medication for the elderly, and increasing taxes on corporations and the wealthy.

 

The debate began after the Senate voted 51-50 to move the legislation forward. Vice President Kamala Harris broke the tie after all 50 Republicans voted no.

The Senate planned to debate the bill for up to 20 hours before embarking on an exhausting, time-consuming amendment process known as a “vote-a-rama.”

 

As Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer maneuvered to keep his 50-member caucus united behind a bill negotiated over several months, Democrats and Republicans were poised to reject each other’s amendments. If even one Democrat defected, the entire effort would be doomed in the 50-50 Senate.

Earlier in the day, the Senate parliamentarian determined that the majority of the $430 billion bill’s healthcare provisions could be passed with a simple majority, circumventing a filibuster rule that requires 60 votes in the 100-seat chamber to advance most legislation and allowing Democrats to pass it over Republican objections.

Democrats hope that the bill will help their candidates in the November 8 midterm elections, in which Biden’s party is fighting to keep its narrow control of the Senate and House of Representatives. The Democrats framed the legislation as a means of combating inflation, which is a major concern for American voters this year.

“The bill, when passed, will meet all of our goals: fighting climate change, lowering healthcare costs, closing tax loopholes abused by the wealthy and reducing the deficit,” Schumer said in a Senate speech.

 

There are three main parts to the bill’s tax provisions: a 15% minimum tax on corporations and the closing of loopholes that the wealthy can use to avoid paying taxes; tougher IRS enforcement; and a new excise tax on stock buybacks.

The legislation has $430 billion in new spending along with raising more than $740 billion in new revenues.

Democrats have said the legislation by 2030 would result in a 40% reduction in US carbon emissions, blamed for climate change.

‘Price-fixing’

The bill would also allow the Medicare government health insurance program for the elderly to begin negotiating prices with the pharmaceutical industry on a limited number of prescription drug prices in 2026 in order to reduce costs. It would also impose a $2,000 annual cap on out-of-pocket medication costs under a Medicare drug program.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, slammed the provision involving drug price negotiations, comparing it to previous “price-fixing” attempts by countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, and the former Soviet Union.

“Their policy would result in a world where many fewer new drugs and treatments are invented in the first place as companies cut back on R&D,” McConnell said during a floor speech.

While senators debated the bill’s policies, its political implications were also on display.

In a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Saturday, former President Donald Trump predicted fallout for Kyrsten Sinema Joe Manchin, two key Democratic senators: “If this deal passes, they are both going to lose their next elections.”

But Manchin and Sinema are not up for re-election until 2024 and many of the provisions of the bill are popular with voters.

The legislation is a scaled-down version of a far broader, more expensive measure that many Democrats on the party’s left had hoped to approve last year. That measure stalled when Manchin, a centrist, balked, complaining that it would exacerbate inflationary pressures.

The bill calls for billions of dollars to encourage the production of more electric vehicles and foster clean energy, though automakers say sourcing rules will sharply limit how many electric vehicles qualify for tax credits.

It would also establish $4 billion in new federal drought relief funds, which could help Democratic Senators Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Mark Kelly of Arizona with their reelection campaigns.

One provision removed from the bill would have required drug companies to refund money to both government and private health plans if drug prices rose faster than inflation.

Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, a leading progressive, has criticized the bill for not going far enough and said he planned to offer amendments that would resurrect a series of social programs he advocated last year, such as expanding the number of prescription drugs on which Medicare could negotiate prices and providing government-subsidized dental, vision, and hearing aid.

His amendments were expected to fail.

Republicans have signaled that they will offer amendments touching on other issues, including controlling immigrants coming across the U.S. border with Mexico and enhancing policing to curtail rising crime rates in American cities since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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