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After four-hour debate, Senate begins voting on budget bill amendments

Republicans plan to propose scores of amendments

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., dons a Portland Trail Blazers themed “Rip City” hat in the Hart Building on Thursday, Aug. 4.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., dons a Portland Trail Blazers themed “Rip City” hat in the Hart Building on Thursday, Aug. 4. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate kicked off its potential marathon of amendment votes on the Democrats’ climate, tax and health package late Saturday, setting the stage for what is likely to be hours — or even days — of votes on predominantly Republican amendments. 

The so-called vote-a-rama follows Senate adoption of a motion to proceed to the bill just after 7:30 p.m. Saturday, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the 50-50 tie. All 50 senators who caucus with the Democrats supported the motion to move forward on the $300 billion package.  

Under the rules, senators had up to 20 hours to debate the bill, but used only four hours of that time. The limits to the vote-a-rama are primarily lawmakers’ stamina and their desire to head home for the August recess after a final vote on passage. 

The Senate is set to consider scores of Republican amendments and several proposed by Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats. Eager to shorten the voting time, Democrats are offering few amendments other than Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s substitute amendment.

Sanders opened the floor debate by calling for the package to go much further. Describing the bill as having some good features but also “some very bad features,” Sanders said he would offer a series of climate and health care amendments, adding that he would demand roll call votes. 

One Sanders amendment would provide $30 billion to establish a national environmental cleanup program, styled after New Deal-era works projects, called the Civilian Conservation Corps. Another would strike provisions beneficial to oil, gas and coal companies, including the requirement to open at least 60 million acres of federal territory.

“In my view, we have to do everything we can to take on the greed, the irresponsibility, the destructiveness of the fossil fuel industry, not give billions of dollars of corporate welfare to an industry that has been destroying our planet,” Sanders said.

He criticized a deal Schumer, D-N.Y., struck with Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., to tweak federal permitting procedure and approve a roughly 300-mile gas pipeline from West Virginia to Virginia. Manchin, whose opposition scuttled Democrats’ earlier efforts at reconciliation, was needed to get the bill through the equally divided Senate.

Sanders said drug pricing provisions in the package don’t go far enough to rein in costs.  Under the package, patients wouldn’t see prices that Medicare negotiates directly with drugmakers until 2026, and they would only involve 10 high-cost drugs. Medicare would be required to negotiate prices for 20 drugs in later years.

Current law bans Medicare from directly negotiating prices of prescription drugs entirely, with the negotiation done instead by private insurers that offer Part D plans.

“If anybody thinks that as a result of this bill we’re going to see lower prices for Medicare, you are mistaken,” Sanders said. “It ain’t going to happen next year, the year after or the year after, and by the way, given the incredible power of the pharmaceutical industry, I would suspect that they will figure out a way to get around this provision if it takes four years to implement.” 

Sanders said he would introduce an amendment that would prohibit Medicare Part D and Part B from paying more for drugs than the Veterans Affairs Department pays. 

The drug pricing language in the bill was the result of months of negotiations between moderate members of the House and Senate who felt uneasy about targeting drug companies. 

Sanders also said he would introduce an amendment to add dental, vision and hearing benefits to Medicare, provisions that were not included in the package because of objections from Manchin.

Republican amendments

Republican amendments include several that would change the drug pricing provisions, which they framed as “price controls” that will limit innovation. Republicans also readied dozens of amendments that would benefit fossil fuel industries.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., submitted one amendment that would remove provisions that raise royalties on oil and gas drilling, another that would remove $87 million for the EPA to conduct outreach and provide technical assistance for states, tribes and low-income groups to lower power emissions, and a third that would increase U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, to Europe. 

“Democrats, of course, want to raise taxes on American energy,” Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said Saturday. “It’s been their claim since day one when Joe Biden basically put a target on the back of American energy and pulled the trigger.”

During the floor debate, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the top Republican on the Budget Committee, said the legislation won’t reduce inflation or improve the economy, mocking Democrats for calling it the Inflation Reduction Act and referring to it as the Schumer-Manchin bill. 

Republicans also oppose the legislation for facilitating the hiring of thousands of new IRS agents, Graham said. 

“This is an army of IRS agents who are going to go after everybody about everything to fill the insatiable desire of our friends on the other side to take money from you to spend up here,” Graham said. 

Republicans may raise a budget point of order on a section proposed by Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., that would set a $35 a month cap on insulin costs for privately insured consumers and Medicare recipients. The legislation would also require Medicare to negotiate certain insulin prices. 

The commercial cap may not survive a challenge under the Senate’s “Byrd rule” that requires reconciliation provisions to have more than a “merely incidental” impact on spending and revenue. Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough did not vet those provisions. 

Any senator could move for a budget point of order to remove the language from the bill and subject it to a 60-vote threshold.

“We’ll see how he wants to proceed with the parliamentarian, and I’m gonna do everything I can to support him,” Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told reporters Saturday night, referring to Warnock. The Georgia senator has what is expected to be one of the toughest races for reelection in November.

Warnock also introduced an amendment that would offer health insurance subsidies to low-income people living in the 12 states that have not accepted the 2010 health care law’s (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) Medicaid expansion. Closing the so-called coverage gap did not make it into the final reconciliation bill as Manchin sought to keep the total cost down.

Schumer and Manchin agreed on the reconciliation package late last month following months of negotiations. 

Democrats made changes to the package last week to win the support of centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., including adjustments to a 15 percent corporate minimum tax based on income reported to shareholders, a 1 percent tax on companies’ stock buybacks and $4 billion for drought relief.

Sinema requested that higher taxes on “carried interest,” a form of pay for investment fund managers, be cut, and the provision was removed from the bill.

Laura Weiss, Sandhya Raman, Lauren Clason and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.    

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