U.S. Senate Democrats get green light on $430 billion climate, drug bill
By Richard Cowan and Makini Brice
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Senate Democrats on Saturday were set to push ahead on a bill that would 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.
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, 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, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement.
The Senate began its rare weekend session at around noon (1600 GMT). Saturday will kick off an arduous process that could extend into early next week, with senators offering amendment after amendment in a time-consuming "vote-a-rama."
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.
"Democrats have received extremely good news," Schumer said in the statement. "Medicare will finally be allowed to negotiate drug prices. … This is a major victory for the American people."
Medicare is the government health insurance program for the elderly and certain Americans with disabilities.
There are three main parts to the tax provisions in the bill: 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.
Beside billions of dollars to encourage the production and purchase of more electric vehicles and foster clean energy, the bill would set $4 billion in new federal drought relief funds. The latter is a move that could help the re-election campaigns of Democratic Senators Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada and Mark Kelly in Arizona.
Senator Tom Carper, the chairman of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, said climate provisions including the methane emissions reduction program were approved by the Senate parliamentarian.
Republicans have promised to do everything they can to stall or block the bill, with Senator Lindsey Graham on Friday calling the Democratic-backed legislation "this jihad they're on to tax and spend."
Democrats aim to push the bill through the Senate using an arcane and complicated "reconciliation" procedure allowing passage without any 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. The parliamentarian ruled that measure could not apply to private industry.
Senators on the left such as Bernie Sanders are likely to try to expand the scope of the bill to include new programs such as federal subsidies for childcare or home healthcare for the elderly. Republicans have signaled that they will offer plenty of amendments touching on another issue: immigrants coming across the U.S. border with Mexico.
Several Democratic senators said they would vote against all amendments, fearing that these could make a delicately negotiated deal unravel.
"I will vote NO on all amendments – even for stuff I like," Democratic Senator Brian Schatz wrote on Twitter. "I can think of lots of ways to strengthen it, but I won't derail this bill by supporting changes."
(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Makini Brice; additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Will Dunham and Scott Malone)
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