WASHINGTON, Aug 6 (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Democrats pushed ahead on Saturday on a bill addressing key items on President Joe Biden’s agenda – tackling climate change, cutting the cost of energy and medicine for the elderly and forcing certain corporations and wealthy Americans to pay more taxes.
In a key first test of Democrats’ ability to push through the sweeping legislation, the Senate voted 51-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking a tie in a rare Saturday session to begin what could be a protracted measurement debate. All 50 Republicans voted against advancing the legislation.
Procedural voting set up an arduous process with senators ready to propose amendment after amendment in a time-consuming “vote-a-rama.”
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The Senate congressman determined that the lion’s share of the health care provisions in the $430 billion bill could pass with a simple majority, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said, circumventing a rule of thumb. filibuster requiring 60 votes in the 100-seat chamber to advance most legislation and allowing Democrats to override Republican objections.
Democrats hope the legislation will give their candidates a boost in the Nov. 8 midterm elections in which Biden’s party is in an uphill battle to retain tight control of the Senate and House of Representatives. Democrats touted the legislation as a way to tackle inflation, a top concern for American voters this year.
“The bill, when passed, will achieve all of our goals: fight climate change, reduce health care costs, close tax loopholes abused by the wealthy, and reduce the deficit,” Schumer said in a speech at the Senate.
The bill’s tax provisions have three main parts: a 15% minimum corporate tax and closing loopholes the wealthy can use to avoid paying taxes; stricter IRS enforcement; and a new excise tax on share buybacks.
The legislation provides $430 billion in new spending and generates more than $740 billion in new revenue. Read more
Democrats said the legislation by 2030 would lead to a 40% reduction in US carbon emissions, which are responsible for climate change.
The measure would also allow the public health insurance program Medicare for the elderly to begin negotiating in 2026 with the pharmaceutical industry on the prices of a limited number of prescription drugs in order to reduce costs. It would also impose a cap of $2,000 per year on out-of-pocket drug costs under a Medicare drug program.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell attacked the drug price negotiation provision, comparing it to past attempts at “price fixing” by countries like Cuba, Venezuela and the former Soviet Union.
“Their policy would result in a world where far fewer new drugs and treatments were invented in the first place as companies cut R&D,” McConnell said in a floor speech, referring to research and development.
The legislation is a scaled-down version of a much larger and more costly measure that many Democrats on the left of the party had hoped to approve last year. The measure was blocked when centrist Democratic Senator Joe Manchin backed down, complaining it would exacerbate inflationary pressures.
The bill calls for billions of dollars to encourage the production and purchase of more electric vehicles and promote clean energy. It would also establish $4 billion in new federal drought relief funds, a provision that could help the re-election campaigns of Democratic senators Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada and Mark Kelly in Arizona.
Democrats aim to push the bill through the Senate using the complicated ‘reconciliation’ procedure allowing passage without Republican support in the house split 50-50 between the parties, with Democrats in charge as Vice President Kamala Harris can cast a deciding vote.
A provision deleted from the bill would have required drug companies to refund money to public and private health plans if drug prices rose faster than inflation.
Left-leaning senators like Bernie Sanders will likely try to broaden the scope of the bill to include new programs such as federal subsidies for child care or home care for the elderly. Republicans have signaled they will be proposing amendments that touch on another issue: immigrants crossing the US border from Mexico.
Some Democrats said they would vote against all of the amendments, fearing they would derail a delicately negotiated deal.
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Reporting by Richard Cowan and Makini Brice; additional reporting by Valérie Volcovici; Editing by Will Dunham and Scott Malone
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