Senate Democrats steeled themselves for a long Saturday night of GOP sabotage attempts as they continue their long slog to pass their signature health care, climate and tax bill.
The unlimited amendment “vote-a-rama” marks the final episode of a painstaking drama that began with a push for a $3.5 trillion social spending package more than a year ago. Senate Republicans are using the amendment process to force Democrats to take a series of politically tricky votes, as most Democrats indicated that they would vote against all amendments to keep their tenuous agreement intact.
“I will vote against every amendment, even their great amendments that look very, very good, which I know will never change the bill because they’ll never vote for it,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (DW.Va.) in an interview. “I’ll vote against them because I’m going to protect the integrity of the bill that we have come to an agreement and worked on.”
The vote-a-rama came hours after all 50 Democrats voted to begin debate on the package, with unanimous opposition from Senate Republicans. Vice President Kamala Harris broke the tie after the vote was held open for more than two hours.
Earlier in the day, most of the party-line proposal survived tests that determined what could remain in the legislation without subjecting it to a filibuster. The Medicare portions of its prescription drug reform plan could still be included, the Senate parliamentarian ruled, while Democrats lost ground on a separate pillar that would have penalized drug companies for raising prices on individuals with private health insurance. And the legislation’s tax and environmental provisions also advanced unscathed, meaning the guts of the bill remained intact.
“This is one of the most comprehensive and impactful bills Congress has seen in decades,” Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said as he kicked off roll call votes. He called it a “capstone to one of the most productive stretches the Senate has seen in a very long time.”
Just two weeks ago, Democrats were expecting to pass a narrower health care bill that aimed to lower the cost of prescription drugs and extended Affordable Care Act subsidies. But Manchin and Schumer then revealed a new deal that revived proposals to spend big on energy and increase taxes on big corporations.
Once the Senate finishes the vote-a-rama, the chamber will move to pass the bill and send it over to the House, which is scheduled to consider the legislation on Friday.
“We need to keep the deal intact and not let Republicans pick us off. Democrats understand that and that’s what we’re going to do,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “The only way we’re going to do this is with Democratic votes, we can’t afford to lose anyone and what this means, we are in this boat together.”
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said he will “vote NO on all amendments, even for stuff I like” and was joined by several other Democrats in that vow.
But it’s not just Republicans who are expected to try to change the bill.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he wanted to offer amendments to expand the child tax credit, target fossil fuel companies and expand Medicare benefits and the scale of the drug pricing reform, declaring Saturday that “there’s nobody who can deny that this legislation does not address the major crises facing working families.” Even before the voting marathon kicked off Sanders had already filed an amendment alongside Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) to expand the ability to negotiate drug prices.
Sanders would need 49 other senators and the vice president to vote with him to approve them, given certain GOP opposition. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the Democratic whip, said leaders are trying to “discourage” that.
“I’m going to try to keep this bill clean and get it out of” the Senate, Durbin said. “It’s too important.”
The core of the bill includes: provisions to lower some prescription drug prices; plow more than $300 billion into climate change and clean energy; impose a 15 percent minimum tax on large corporations plus a new 1 percent excise tax on stock buybacks; increased IRS enforcement; and extend Obamacare subsidies through the 2024 election.
Importantly, the fate of one major health care provision that Democrats want in the bill remains uncertain: reducing the price of insulin, a top priority for imperiled incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.). Republicans are expected to challenge the insulin provision in real time, forcing a showdown on the Senate floor.
“I need them not to block it,” Warnock said of Republicans. “If they don’t block it, it will pass.”
Aides on both sides of the aisle had sparred over Democrats’ drug-pricing plans for weeks. Republicans argued that the savings yielded by the mandate involving the private insurance market, in particular, could be considered a budget side effect rather than the policy’s main purpose, which would break Senate budget rules.
Senate Republicans still criticized the Democratic prescription drug language for setting prices. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said it “would bring about a world where many fewer new drugs and treatments get invented in the first place as companies cut back on” research and development.
Democrats also received good news overnight on their climate change plan — the Senate’s rules arbiter signed off on the bill’s energy provisions, including electric vehicle tax credits and a bonus tax credit to encourage clean energy developers to pay the prevailing wage. The electric-vehicle portion of the bill also includes provisions designed to encourage US manufacturing of batteries that Manchin supports.
Democrats also preserved another element of the bill’s climate section: a proposed fee on oil and gas companies that exceed a certain level of methane emissions. And at the direction of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the legislation’s accelerated corporate tax depreciation language was scuttled on Thursday, as was a proposed narrowing for the so-called carried interest loophole that covers some investment income.
She and three other Democratic senators from the west also secured $4 billion in new drought funding in the party-line bill.
Caitlin Emma contributed to this report.