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Debate begins on massive budget package; ‘vote-a-rama’ awaits

Senators expect all-night voting session on climate, tax and health care bill

Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., is seen during a vote in the Capitol on Thursday, Aug. 4.
Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., is seen during a vote in the Capitol on Thursday, Aug. 4. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate voted to begin considering Democrats’ climate, tax and health care package on a party-line vote Saturday, setting up a marathon overnight voting session toward passage of the bill.

With all 50 senators who caucus with Democrats voting for the motion to proceed, the reconciliation bill advanced after a year of negotiations and changes to get key centrists in the evenly divided chamber on board.

All Republicans opposed the motion, which was adopted after a lengthy delay to allow time for senators to return to Washington and for Vice President Kamala Harris to arrive to break the tie. The 51-50 vote allows the Senate to move forward with up to 20 hours of debate, followed by unlimited amendment votes known as the “vote-a-rama” and final passage.

Senators were expecting to skip much of the debate time to move ahead with amendments, with votes expected to go into the early morning. Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said he expected the vote-a-rama to begin after around roughly three hours of debate at most, and that all GOP senators would be back in time to vote on amendments.

In opening remarks Saturday on the Senate floor, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., described this summer as “one of the most productive sessions in recent Senate memory,” naming bipartisan bills that passed the Senate in recent weeks.

“We have one more ground-breaking item left. The most important of them all: the Inflation Reduction Act,” he said, using the name he and Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., gave the bill.

Democrats wrapped up work Saturday to ready their bill for the floor, announcing a flurry of decisions by the Senate parliamentarian in the early morning hours and releasing final text that reflects changes made to satisfy centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and to accommodate the parliamentarian’s guidance.

Before the motion to proceed vote, the Congressional Budget Office confirmed the bill met reconciliation instructions adopted last year, according to Schumer’s office. The CBO later released a letter explaining that while a full cost estimate wasn’t ready yet, the revised bill meets the requirements for each committee under the fiscal 2022 budget resolution.

Changes in the final text include adjustments to a 15 percent corporate minimum tax based on income reported to shareholders, which Sinema appeared to demand.

The edits would allow for accelerated deductions for purchases of tangible assets like machinery and other equipment, a key win for manufacturers. Another change would exempt from the tax gradual write-offs of wireless spectrum assets purchased by telecommunications carriers, which critics have said could otherwise hinder the rollout of 5G mobile networks.

A 1 percent tax on what companies spend on stock buybacks was added in to boost revenue, with higher taxes on a form of pay for investment fund managers, “carried interest,” out due to Sinema.

Also added was $4 billion for drought relief for Western states, and a new tax break was added on government payments made to certain “socially disadvantaged” farmers and ranchers.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., was back in the Senate on Saturday after weeks away recovering from two surgeries for a broken hip. His vote was expected to be critical to passing the bill given Republicans’ opposition. The budget reconciliation process allows Democrats to avoid a Senate filibuster, so they only need majority support on the bill’s major votes.

Republicans have stayed together in their opposition to Democrats’ endeavor.

After huddling with Manchin during nomination votes earlier in the afternoon, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, took to the floor to lambaste the bill as the “Manchin-Schumer tax hike.” He argued the measure’s $300 billion-plus in tax increases would punish manufacturers including coal operators in West Virginia, while doing nothing to curb runaway inflation.

“Sen. Manchin likes to say, ‘If I can’t go back home and explain it, I can’t vote for it,'” Cornyn said. “But for the life of me, I don’t know how our Democratic colleagues are going to explain this one in November.”

End in sight?

Earlier in the day, senators predicted the vote-a-rama would begin Saturday evening with final passage coming early Sunday morning sometime, whenever Republicans tire of forcing difficult votes meant to hit Democrats politically or force cracks in the united backing for their bill. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., also has his own amendments to the bill, which he believes should be more expansive.

Some political theater is expected during the all-nighter. For example, Democrats decided to leave in the bill legislation from Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., to cap what privately insured consumers and Medicare recipients pay for insulin at $35 per month and require Medicare to negotiate certain insulin prices.

Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough didn’t vet the provisions, according to a Senate Democratic aide. The commercial cap on insulin pricing would be trickier under the “Byrd rule,” which requires reconciliation provisions to have more than a “merely incidental” impact on spending or revenues. 

Democrats suspect the Medicare cap will pass muster, but the commercial cap is unlikely to survive a Byrd challenge, the aide said. Democrats are daring Republicans to raise a budget point of order on that section of the bill, which would then mean a 60-vote threshold is required to keep the text in.

Warnock, who’s facing among the toughest Senate reelection bids this fall, said 12 percent of adults in his home state have diabetes and that companies have been “gouging” when setting the price of the drug.

If his language falls out of the bill, it’s on the Senate, not the parliamentarian, he said.

“The only way this doesn’t get done is if the Republicans block it,” Warnock said, noting the $35 cap has bipartisan support. “This is up to the Senate tonight. It’s not up to the parliamentarian, regardless of how she rules.”

Democrats went a different direction on the Finance Committee’s package for lowering prescription drug costs, making tweaks after the parliamentarian decided a penalty for drugmakers that raise Medicare prices faster than inflation didn’t pass muster.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called the changes a “painful” bite out of the measure.

Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told reporters that even with the edits, the drug pricing provisions retained their “overwhelming savings” to help pay for the bill. Earlier, the CBO estimated that the drug pricing title would lower deficits by nearly $288 billion over a decade, accounting for a major chunk of the measure’s deficit reduction.

During opening remarks Saturday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the drug pricing language “a far-left takeover of America’s medicine cabinets” that would lead to fewer cures and more deaths. 

Clean energy provisions

Those were the major roadblocks for Democrats from the “Byrd bath.” A $270 billion set of clean energy tax credits got full approval from the parliamentarian, as did other climate measures under the Environment and Public Works Committee’s jurisdiction. Wyden touted that the vetting process left the package largely intact.

“The job that our team did in terms of the whole parliamentary gauntlet and particularly in climate and prescription drugs, those folks ought to be in the parliamentary hall of fame,” he said.

Outside the parliamentarian’s process, Michigan Democrats had hoped to soften requirements on electric vehicles that were added for Manchin that aim to force supply chains out of China, worried they could make incentives unusable on the currently proposed timeline. Sen. Gary Peters told reporters Saturday afternoon to “stay tuned” on whether they’d see changes, but none were in Democrats’ final text. The issue could come up during the vote-a-rama.

Meanwhile many Democrats prepared to stay united through the vote-a-rama, as they face a series of Republican proposals meant to put them on the record on politically tough issues and force cracks in Democrats’ plan.

“We can’t afford to lose anyone and that means we are in this boat together,” Warren said. “And we got to figure out the right way to ride the waves until we get there, but we’ve got to stick together.”

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

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