Senate Democrats plan to bring legislation to the floor in March designed to cut costs for Americans as rampant inflation drives up gasoline, food and other prices.
The caucus began debating ideas during their weekly lunch Tuesday. The proposals discussed included suspending the gas tax, capping the cost of insulin and instituting antitrust regulations to break up monopolies in certain industries, among other measures. Democrats did not make any decisions yet on what they will bring to the floor next month.
“We're going to focus and we're going to come up with caucus agreement on those ideas,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters after the lunch. “Not everyone will agree with each idea, but there'll be large buy-in and you'll hear a lot about this from us as we move on.”
Schumer said Democrats welcome Republican support on the still emerging proposals, but they plan to hold votes regardless of bipartisan cooperation.
“If we can get 60 votes on a bunch of them, that's fine,” he said. “But when we can't, we're still going to move forward, and you'll see some votes on the floor on these as well.”
The cost-cutting measures cannot pass the Senate without at least 10 Republican votes needed to overcome a filibuster — assuming unified Democratic support, which is not guaranteed.
The only alternative is using the budget reconciliation process to skirt a filibuster, but Schumer suggested that’s not something Democrats are planning to use for this effort as they preserve their fiscal 2022 reconciliation vehicle for a larger climate and social safety net package.
Some of the ideas the party discussed Tuesday, like capping insulin costs and other measures to lower the cost of prescription drugs, were in the House-passed $2.2 trillion reconciliation package, which Democrats dubbed “Build Back Better.” But that bill has stalled amid opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., to some components, as well as the larger price tag.
“One is not a substitute for another,” Schumer said. "We're having lots of discussions with individual senators to get Build Back Better moving again. But at the same time, our focus on costs . . . does not take away from Build Back Better."
Gas tax holiday
One proposal Democrats discussed is suspending the federal gas tax through the end of the year.
A group of Democrats introduced a bill last week to cut the excise tax on gasoline produced, imported or sold from 18.4 cents per gallon to zero until Jan. 1, 2023.
The relief would cover the federal gas tax, which could allow the average driver to benefit. It would not apply to the 24.4 cents per gallon tax on diesel used for trucks, buses and boats, meaning those in the supply chain industry would not see cost cuts.
The authors targeted relief only to the federal gas tax because it would provide "the most direct and immediate relief to consumers," according to a Democratic staffer.
The measure comes from several Democrats staring down tough reelection races this fall: Sens. Mark Kelly of Arizona, Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire. Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Jacky Rosen of Nevada are also co-sponsors.
Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzalez rates Kelly, Warnock and Cortez Masto’s races a Toss-up and Hassan’s Tilt Democratic.
Schumer nodded to the Democrats “in tough races in 2022” who introduced the gas tax holiday bill, but he stopped short of promising a vote on it.
“We haven't yet taken a caucus position, but it's one of . . . many things that we're looking at,” he said.
The bill would direct the Treasury Department to transfer revenue from its general fund into the Highway Trust Fund and Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund to cover lost tax dollars.
Stabenow said if senators don’t like that approach they could come up with over revenue offsets.
Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden of Oregon, who threw his weight behind the bill, said he’d personally like to finance a suspension by levying other taxes on “big oil.” But he acknowledged there are differing opinions on the issue and said he supports the measure’s proposal to transfer revenue from the general fund.
“I’ve always considered the gas tax regressive,” Wyden said. “And I’m particularly concerned about how big oil always gets a free ride on their profits.”
The bill declares the sense of Congress that consumers immediately get the benefit of the tax cut and says the Treasury Secretary “may use all applicable authorities” to make sure the benefits go to consumers.
Stabenow said that language is intended to provide oversight so that companies cannot convert the tax break into profits instead of lowering prices at the pump.
“We are seeing huge profits of the oil and gas companies and yet prices continue to go up. And the reason they go up is that they can,” she said. “There is no oversight and regulation for them. They can charge whenever they want, and they're taking advantage of people.”
Some Democrats were hesitant after Tuesday’s caucus discussion to take a position on the gas tax holiday, saying they still need to review the proposal and that the initial conversation was more informational.
“I think people are going to look at all the different pieces of the equation,” Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen said.
Wyden acknowledged that some senators are concerned about the precedent a gas tax suspension might set or about climate implications, but he didn’t offer more detail.
One key Democratic senator, Delaware's Tom Carper, didn't sound enthusiastic about the proposal. Carper, a member of the tax-writing Finance panel as well as chairman of Senate Environment and Public Works, cited the measure's potential cost, which the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget pegged at around $20 billion.
"One of my concerns has always been fiscal responsibility, deficit reduction, making sure that things are worth having been worth paying for," Carper said. "We seem to have gotten away from that."
The need for GOP support could also present a problem for the effort to suspend the gas tax. Republican Whip John Thune of South Dakota said there’s not enough energy supply to meet demand for gasoline.
“Repealing the gas tax for whatever amount of time leaves a huge hole in the Highway Trust Fund and doesn’t ultimately provide a solution to the problem,” Thune said.
The White House, meanwhile, is supporting the congressional effort as it considers its own measures to tamp down inflation. But President Joe Biden, speaking about the conflict in Eastern Europe Tuesday, warned that a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine could lead to further increases in domestic energy prices.
“We are taking active steps to alleviate the pressure on our own energy markets and offset rising prices. We're coordinating with major energy, energy consumers and producers," Biden said. "We're prepared to deploy all the tools and authority at our disposal to provide relief at the gas pump and I'll work with Congress on additional measures to help protect consumers and address the impact of prices at the pump."
Stabenow said the caucus also briefly discussed compliance credits oil refiners have to buy if they don't purchase enough renewable fuels, like corn-based ethanol and soybean-based biodiesel, to meet requirements under the federal Renewable Fuel Standard.
These credits, known as Renewable Identification Numbers or RINs, have soared in price over the last year, driving up costs for refiners. Industry critics say lowering such compliance costs would result in fewer costs passed through to consumers, though renewable fuels advocates argue RINs help lower the cost of ethanol, which makes up at least 10 percent of each gallon of gasoline — offsetting any higher gasoline costs.
Sen. John Hickenlooper said one idea floated was to put a cap on RIN prices. “If you put your mind to it, there are any number of places that we could step in,” said the Colorado Democrat, whose state is the nation's fifth-largest oil producer, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Democrats’ floor action in March will come the same month in which the Federal Reserve is expected to deploy its tools for tamping down inflation, like raising short-term interest rates and halting its purchases of Treasury debt.
But both Congress and the Fed have to tread carefully to ensure any actions they take don’t impact the labor market where unemployment remains low as wages rise.
“Our goal is to have wages that have increased stay up, the costs that Americans pay — much of it induced by COVID — go down, and people are much better off,” Schumer said.
Jessica Wehrman, Niels Lesniewski and Joseph Morton contributed to this report.