Dems near congressional passage of climate, health package

Democrats pushed their flagship climate change and health care bill toward House passage Friday, placing President Joe Biden on the brink of a back-from-the-dead triumph on his leading domestic goals that could energize his party going into November’s elections.

Democrats were poised to muscle the measure through the narrowly divided House Friday over solid Republican opposition. They employed similar party unity and Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote Sunday to power the measure through the 50-50 Senate.

The package is but a shadow of the far larger, more ambitious plan to supercharge federal environment and social programs that Biden and his party envisioned early last year. That crashed after centrist Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said it was too costly, underscoring the leverage every Democrat has in the evenly divided Senate in which every Republican was opposed.

Ultimately, Democrats thirsty to declare victory capped months of often bitter infighting and forged a more modest compromise that still addresses top-tier party goals such as reining in pharmaceutical costs, taxing large companies and, especially, curbing carbon emissions. They hope it will show they can wring accomplishments from an often fractiously gridlocked Washington that alienates many voters.

“For too long, too many people in this country have felt like the work that happens in Washington isn’t meant to help them,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. “No more. That time is over.”

The bill’s pillar is about $375 billion over 10 years to encourage industry and consumers to shift from carbon-emitting to cleaner forms of energy, hailed by experts as Congress’ biggest climate investment ever. That includes $4 billion added to cope with the West’s catastrophic drought.

Spending, tax credits and loans would bolster technology like solar panels, consumer efforts to improve home energy efficiency, emission-reducing equipment for coal- and gas-powered power plants and air pollution controls for farms, ports and low-income communities.

In a pair of top Democratic health priorities, another $64 billion would help 13 million people pay premiums over the next three years for privately bought health insurance. Medicare would gain the power to negotiate its costs for pharmaceuticals, initially in 2026 for only 10 drugs. Medicare beneficiaries’ out-of-pocket prescription costs would be limited to $2,000 starting in 2025, and starting next year they would pay no more than $35 monthly for insulin, the costly diabetes drug.

The bill would raise around $740 billion in revenue over the decade, over a third from government savings from lower drug prices. More would flow from higher taxes on some $1 billion corporations, levies on companies that repurchase their own stock and stronger IRS tax collections. About $300 billion would remain to defray budget deficits, a fraction of the period’s projected total of $16 trillion.

Republicans said the measure was a compendium of wasteful liberal daydreams that would raise taxes and families’ living costs.

“We face no emergency,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. “We’re simply here because my friends on the other side want to create the illusion that they’re doing something positive before the midterm election.”

Republicans say the legislation’s business tax increases will force companies to raise prices, worsening the nation’s bout with its worst inflation since 1981. Nonpartisan analysts say the measure will have negligible inflation impact one way or the other.

Republicans say Democrats’ plan to expand the IRS budget, aimed at collecting about $120 billion in unpaid taxes, envisions 87,000 agents who’d be coming after families. Democrats called foul, saying their $80 billion IRS budget boost would be to replace waves of retirees, not just agents, and to modernize equipment, and say families and small businesses earning below $400,000 annually would not be targeted.

The GOP also says the bill would raise taxes on lower- and middle-income families. An analysis by Congress’ nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, which didn’t include the bill’s tax breaks for health care and energy, estimated that the corporate tax boosts would marginally affect those taxpayers, partly due to lower stock prices and wages.

The bill caps a fertile three months in which Congress has voted to improve veterans’ health benefits, gird the semiconductor industry, moderately strengthen gun restrictions for younger buyers, finance Ukraine’s war with Russia and add Finland and Sweden to NATO. All passed with bipartisan support, suggesting Republicans also want to display their productive side.

It’s unclear whether voters will reward Democrats for the legislation after months of painfully high inflation dominating voters’ attention. Though record gasoline prices have dipped, Biden’s popularity dangles damagingly low and midterm elections have a consistent history of ending careers of lawmakers from the party that holds the White House.

Democrats’ economic bill had its roots in early 2021, after Congress approved a $1.9 trillion measure over GOP opposition to combat the pandemic-induced economic downturn. Emboldened, the new president and his party reached further.

They initially produced an ambitious 10-year, $3.5 trillion environment and social plan they called Build Back Better. It featured free prekindergarten, paid family and medical leave, expanded Medicare benefits, increases for education and housing and an easing of immigration restrictions. It sought to roll back Trump-era tax breaks for the rich and corporations and proposed $555 billion for climate efforts, well above the resources in Friday’s legislation.

With Manchin opposing those amounts, it was sliced to a roughly $2 trillion measure that Democrats moved through the House in November. Just before Christmas, Manchin unexpectedly sank that bill, citing fears of inflation and international uncertainty and earning brickbats from exasperated fellow Democrats from Capitol Hill and the White House.

With on-and-off closed-door talks between Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., seemingly dying, the two lawmakers shocked Washington and announced agreement last month on the new, pared-down package.

Manchin won billions for carbon capture technology for the fossil fuel industries he champions, plus procedures for more oil drilling on federal lands and promises for faster energy project permitting.

Centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., also used her leverage for late concessions, eliminating planned higher taxes on hedge fund managers and helping win the drought funds.

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