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Democrats’ big climate, health care and tax package clears major Senate hurdle

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WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Saturday to advance a sweeping climate and economic bill with the support of all 50 Democrats, bringing long-stalled elements of President Joe Biden’s agenda one step closer to reality.

The procedural vote on the filibuster-proof package was 51-50, with all Republicans opposing the motion to start debate and Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote. If that support holds, it is sufficient to pass the bill through the Senate and send it to the House in the approaching days.

The laws, called the Inflation Reduction Act, includes major spending to combat climate change and extend health care coverage, paid for with savings on pharmaceuticals and taxes on corporations. It puts a whole bunch of billions of dollars toward deficit reduction.

“That is one of the crucial comprehensive and impactful bills Congress has seen in many years,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the ground before the vote.

“It should mean rather a lot for the families and the people of our country,” Harris told NBC News as she arrived to interrupt the 50-50 tie.

The procedural vote, during a rare weekend session, kicks off several hours of debate, followed by a “vote-a-rama” — a process through which senators can offer virtually unlimited amendments that require an easy majority of votes to adopt.

The laws is not subject to the filibuster — it’s being pursued through a special process called reconciliation, which allows Democrats to pass it on their very own. But the method includes limits; policies included within the bill have to be related to spending and taxes and the laws has to comply with a strict set of budget rules. It’s the identical process Democrats used to pass the American Rescue Plan in 2021 and Republicans used to pass the Trump tax cuts of 2017.

Before Saturday’s vote, the Senate parliamentarian ruled that key Democratic provisions on clean energy and allowing Medicare to barter prescription drug prices passed muster and could possibly be included within the inflation package, Democratic leaders said.

“While there was one unlucky ruling in that the inflation rebate is more limited in scope,” Schumer said, “the general program stays intact and we’re one step closer to finally taking up Big Pharma and lowering Rx drug prices for hundreds of thousands of Americans.”

The Democrats-only package, which incorporates several pieces of Biden’s Construct Back Higher agenda, was long considered dead after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., rejected a bigger bill in December. He cut a deal last week with Schumer, pleasantly surprising a lot of his Democratic colleagues, and has since been on a media blitz to sell it.

“It is a red, white and blue bill,” Manchin said recently on MSNBC, calling it “considered one of the best pieces of laws” and “the bill that we want to fight inflation, to have more energy.”

On Thursday, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., following every week of silence, signed off on the bill after securing some changes to it.

Sinema forced Democrats to remove a provision that might have limited the carried interest tax break, which enables wealthy hedge fund and investment managers to pay a lower tax rate.

“We had no alternative,” Schumer told reporters.

As a substitute, it was replaced by a recent 1% excise tax on stock buybacks that is anticipated to usher in $74 billion — five times as much because the carried interest provision, Schumer said. Sinema also secured $4 billion in funding for drought prevention in Arizona and other western states.

Before her changes, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that the bill would scale back the deficit by about $100 billion over a decade, with additional potential for $200 billion in revenue in consequence of beefing up IRS resources for enforcement.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., promised “hard votes for the Democrats” within the vote-a-rama process.

“The query is, at the top, are those amendments going to be amendments actually which may change the bill? Could make it higher. Might make it harder to pass within the House, who knows?” Thune said Friday.

Some Democrats are frightened about Republicans proposing poison pill amendments on contentious issues akin to immigration and crime that would win a majority of votes within the Senate — picking off some moderates and vulnerable senators facing re-election this fall — but alienate other Democrats and disrupt the delicate deal.

“I actually cannot support it, if extraneous provisions get adopted, particularly pejorative immigration provisions that don’t have anything to do with the health, welfare and security of the American people,” Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said this week on MSNBC.

On Saturday, a handful of Senate Democrats took to Twitter and urged their colleagues to carry the road and vote down amendments that would jeopardize the package.

“I’ll vote NO on all amendments, even those I agree with,” tweeted Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn. “This bill makes historic progress on climate motion and lowering prescription drug costs. It has 50 votes, and we want to stay together to maintain it that way.”

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., agreed with that strategy. “There are quite a few us who’ve already tweeted that we’ll be voting no on amendments that we like and we do not like,” he told reporters Saturday.

“There’s such an ethical urgency … to get a bill across the road that is going to cope with the existential threat of climate change. I feel that is motivating and I’m seeing much more unity than normal.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Friday the amendment process could be unpleasant. “What is going to vote-a-rama be like? It’ll be like hell,” he said.

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