U.S. Senate Democrats advance $430 billion climate, drug bill

U.S. Senate Democrats advance $430 billion climate, drug bill

WASHINGTON, Aug 6 (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Democrats on Saturday moved ahead on a bill to address key elements of President Joe Biden’s agenda – tackling climate change, lowering the cost of energy and elderly people’s medications and forcing some corporations and wealthy Americans to pay more taxes.

In a key first test of the ability of Democrats to win passage of the sweeping legislation, the Senate voted 51-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie during a rare Saturday session to begin what could be an extended debate on the measure. All 50 Republicans voted against moving forward with the legislation.

The procedural vote set up an arduous process with senators set to offer amendment after amendment in a time-consuming “vote-a-rama.”

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The Senate parliamentarian determined that the lion’s share of the healthcare provisions in the $430 billion bill could be passed with only a simple majority, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said, bypassing a filibuster rule requiring 60 votes in the 100-seat chamber to advance most legislation and enabling Democrats to pass it over Republican objections.

Democrats hope that the legislation will give a boost to their candidates in the Nov. 8 midterm elections in which Biden’s party is in an uphill battle to retain its narrow control of the Senate and House of Representatives. The Democrats cast the legislation as a vehicle to combat inflation, a prime concern of U.S. voters this year.

“The bill, when passed, will meet all of our goals: fighting climate change, lowering healthcare costs, closing tax loopholes abused by the wealthy and reducing the deficit,” Schumer said in a Senate speech.

There are three main parts to the bill’s tax provisions: a 15% minimum tax on corporations and the closing of loopholes that the wealthy can use to avoid paying taxes; tougher IRS enforcement; and a new excise tax on stock buybacks.

The legislation has $430 billion in new spending along with raising more than $740 billion in new revenues. read more

Democrats have said the legislation by 2030 would result in a 40% reduction in U.S. carbon emissions, blamed for climate change.

‘PRICE-FIXING’

The measure also would allow the Medicare government health insurance program for the elderly to begin negotiating in 2026 with the pharmaceutical industry over prices on a limited number of prescription drug prices as a way of reducing costs. It also would place a $2,000-per-year cap on out-of-pocket medication costs under a Medicare drug program.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell attacked the provision involving negotiating drug prices, comparing it to past “price-fixing” attempts by countries such as Cuba, Venezuela and the former Soviet Union.

“Their policy would bring about a world where many fewer new drugs and treatments get invented in the first place as companies cut back on R&D,” McConnell said in a floor speech, referring to research and development.

The legislation is a scaled-down version of a far broader, more expensive measure that many Democrats on the party’s left had hoped to approve last year. That measure stalled when centrist Democratic Senator Joe Manchin balked, complaining that it would exacerbate inflationary pressures.

The bill calls for billions of dollars to encourage the production and purchase of more electric vehicles and foster clean energy. It also would set $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 chamber divided 50-50 between the parties, with the Democrats in control because Vice President Kamala Harris can cast a tie-breaking vote.

One provision cut from the bill would have forced drug companies to refund money to both government and private health plans if drug prices rise more quickly than inflation.

Senators on the left such as Bernie Sanders are likely to try to expand the bill’s scope to include new programs such as federal subsidies for childcare or home healthcare for the elderly. Republicans have signaled that they will offer amendments touching on another issue: immigrants coming across the U.S. border with Mexico.

Some Democrats said they will vote against all amendments, fearing that these could make a delicately negotiated deal unravel.

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Reporting by Richard Cowan and Makini Brice; additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Will Dunham and Scott Malone

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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