Senate congressman approves most of Democrats’ drug price controls

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats pushed their election-year economic bill toward Senate approval early Sunday, beginning President Joe Biden’s sweeping collection of priorities on climate, energy, health and taxes on a path the party hopes will end with the final passage through Congress by the end of this week.

The equally divided Senate voted on Saturday to begin debating the legislation 51-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie and overcoming unanimous Republican opposition. A scaled-down version of earlier multi-trillion-dollar measures that Democrats failed to advance, the package has become a partisan battleground over inflation, gas prices and other issues that, according to polls, motivate voters.

The House, where Democrats have a narrow majority, could give final approval to the legislation next Friday.

“Now is the time to move forward with a big, bold package for the American people,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y. “This landmark bill will reduce inflation, cut costs, fight climate change. It’s time to move this nation forward.

Republicans said the measure would hurt the economy and make it harder for people to cope with skyrocketing inflation. They said the bill’s business taxes would hurt job creation and force prices to rise and urged voters to remember that in November.

“The best way to stop this tax and spend the inflation madness is to fire some of the 50 so they can’t keep doing this to your family,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a top Republican of the Senate Budget Committee.

Nonpartisan analysts said the legislation, which Democrats named the Cut Inflation Act, would have a minor impact on the nation’s worst inflation in four decades. Even so, he would tackle issues the party has wanted to tackle for years, including global warming, pharmaceutical costs and taxing huge corporations.

Before reaching the final passage, senators waded through an unbroken pile of amendments called a “vote-a-rama” that seemed certain to last for hours.

In early votes, the chamber rejected an attempt by progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to demand that Medicare pay the same lower prescription drug prices paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Another, by Graham, was defeated; that would have wiped out a levy Democrats want to renew on oil barrels that raises money for hazardous waste cleanup. Republicans said the Democrats’ proposal would raise gas prices, a sore point for voters after record pump prices this summer.

Earlier, the Senate congressman approved most of the Democrats’ revised 755-page bills. But Elizabeth MacDonough, the nonpartisan House rules arbiter, said Democrats needed to scrap a significant part of their plan to cut drug prices.

MacDonough said Democrats violated Senate budget rules by imposing stiff penalties on drug companies that raised prices above inflation for drugs sold in the private insurance market. These were the bill’s main drug price protections for the roughly 180 million people whose health coverage comes from private insurance, either through work or purchased by themselves.

Other pharmaceutical provisions remained intact, including giving Medicare the power to negotiate what it pays for drugs for its 64 million elderly beneficiaries, a longtime Democratic aspiration. Penalties on manufacturers for overshooting inflation would apply to drugs sold to Medicare, and there is a $2,000 annual cap on free drug and vaccine costs for Medicare beneficiaries.

Democrats are using special procedures that would allow them to pass the measure without having to achieve the 60-vote majority that legislation often needs in the Senate. To do so, they must adhere to rules that include the requirement that the provisions are intended primarily to affect the federal budget, not to impose new policy.

The weekend debate capped a startling 10-day turnaround that saw Democrats resuscitate key elements of Biden’s agenda that seemed dead. In quick deals with the Democrats’ two most unpredictable senators — first conservative Joe Manchin of West Virginia and then Arizona centrist Kyrsten Sinema — Schumer pulled together a package that would give the party an election feat at the Congress this fall.

The measure is a shadow of Biden’s original 10-year, $3.5 trillion proposal, which funded a rainbow of progressive dreams, including paid family leave, universal preschool, child care and relief higher taxes for families with children. The current bill, just over a tenth that size, has become much narrower as Democratic leaders seek votes from centrists Manchin and Sinema, but it has unified a party eager to declare victory and to show voters that they are solving their problems.

The bill offers spending and tax incentives favored by progressives to buy electric vehicles and make buildings more energy efficient. But to salute Manchin, whose state is a leading producer of fossil fuels, there is also money to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants and language compelling the government to open up more land and of federal waters to oil drilling.

The expiration of subsidies that help millions pay private insurance premiums would be extended by three years, and $4 billion is earmarked to help Western states fight drought. A new provision would create a $35 monthly cap on insulin, the expensive diabetes drug, for Medicare and private insurance patients starting next year. It seemed possible that the language would be weakened or suppressed during the debate.

Reflecting Democrats’ calls for tax fairness, there would be a new 15% minimum tax on certain corporations with annual profits over $1 billion but paying well below the 21% corporate tax. Companies buying back their own shares would be taxed 1% for those transactions, traded after Sinema refused to back higher taxes on hedge fund managers. The IRS budget would be inflated to strengthen its tax collections.

While the bill’s final costs were still being determined, it would spend nearly $400 billion over 10 years to slow climate change, which analysts say would be the nation’s biggest investment in the effort. , and billions more for health care. This would raise more than $700 billion in taxes and government drug cost savings, leaving about $300 billion for deficit reduction over the next decade – a hit from the 16,000 billions of dollars in projected budget deficits for this period.

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Associated Press writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report.

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James V. Hayes