The U.S. Senate voted along party lines Saturday night to advance to debate on Democrats’ sweeping energy, health and taxes bill, clearing a major hurdle to passage.
The 51-50 vote, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie, cleared the chamber to debate and vote on amendments to the measure and indicated that it had enough support from Democrats to overcome unified Republican opposition.
“We will show the American people that, yes, we are capable of passing a historic climate package, and rein in drug companies, and make our tax code fairer,” Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said before the vote. “We are able to make big promises and work hard at keeping them as well.
“This is one of the most comprehensive and far-reaching pieces of legislation that has come before the Congress in decades,” the New York Democrat added. “It will help just about every citizen in this country and make America a much better place.”
As expected, every Republican voted against the measure. Republicans in and out of the Senate have criticized the measure for spending too much during a recession while doing little to address consumer inflation, which they say is the foremost issue American face.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell focused his remarks on the measure’s provisions allowing Medicare to negotiate the prices of certain prescription drugs, saying it would lead to a drastic reduction in research and development efforts in the private sector.
“Democrats’ policy would not bring about some paradise where we get all the amazing new innovations we would have gotten anyway, but at lower prices,” he said. “Their policy would bring about a world where many fewer new drugs and treatments get invented in the first place, as companies cut back on R&D.”
The White House said Saturday that President Joe Biden’s administration “strongly supports” the bill.
“This legislation would lower health care, prescription drug, and energy costs, invest in energy security, and make our tax code fairer—all while fighting inflation and reducing the deficit,” the statement of administration policy said.
The vote opened a rare weekend Senate session — while the chamber was scheduled to be on its August recess — that is expected to include up to 20 hours of debate and consideration of 40 to 50 amendments in a “vote-a-rama.”
Depending on how long debate and amendment votes take, a final vote is expected Sunday or Monday.
The bill, negotiated primarily by Schumer and West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin III with additional changes made at the behest of Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, would spend nearly $370 billion on clean energy programs, allow Medicare to negotiate some drug prices beginning in 2026 and change the tax code and bolster Internal Revenue Enforcement to bring in more than $400 billion in new revenue over 10 years.
A July 29 analysis by the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania found the bill would have a negligible impact on inflation.
After negotiating with Sinema and presenting the bill to the Senate parliamentarian to ensure all the provisions qualified for consideration under budget reconciliation, Democrats released a longer 755-page updated bill minutes before voting to open debate Saturday.
The reconciliation process allows Democrats to pass the bill with a simple majority, instead of the usual 60-vote threshold.
The CBO sent Schumer an incomplete score of the updated bill Satuday. The estimate showed seven of the eight spending sections would increase the deficit by $115 billion over 10 years. It did not include revenue projections.
Among the late changes to the bill was an addition of $4 billion to address Western droughts.
Western Democratic Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Mark Kelly of Arizona and Michael Bennet of Colorado announced they secured the funding for the Bureau of Reclamation to address droughts in Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado.
“The Western United States is experiencing an unprecedented drought, and it is essential that we have the resources we need to support our states’ efforts to combat climate change, conserve water resources, and protect the Colorado River Basin,” they said in a joint statement.
Democrats also added a provision to cap the price of insulin co-pays for Americans at $35 starting in 2024. The insulin language, though, may be challenged by Republicans on the floor.
Another provision, pushed by Virginia Democrat Sen. Tim Kaine, and included in the bill’s initial draft, would permanently extend the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which provides monthly payments and medical benefits to disabled coal miners who developed black lung disease while working in coal mines.
The reduced prescription drug costs and tax code changes more than offset the bill’s spending, reducing the deficit by about $100 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The extra IRS enforcement would bring the total deficit reduction to around $300 billion.
Those projections have not stopped Republicans from criticizing the bill as a “tax-and-spend” measure.
The deficit reduction would amount to less than 1% of the country’s gross domestic product over 10 years, Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican said Friday.
“This will be a total rounding error,” he said. “So that’s what they’re using to justify and that’s their strongest argument, it’s a pretty weak strong argument.”
Forcing tough votes
Most amendments to the Democrat-written bill are expected to come from Republicans, some with the express purpose of forcing Democrats into tough political positions ahead of November’s elections.
GOP Conference Chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming said Republicans would propose amendments on immigration, crime, inflation and energy policy.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said the amendment votes would be “like hell.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, said that the chamber would return from its August recess to vote Friday on a Senate-passed bill.