By Ashe O
Washington, Aug 8 (IANS): The US Congress moved much closer to the passage of President Joe Biden's much articulated but modified Build Back Better (BBB) initiative on climate, healthcare and tax spending as bleary-eyed Senators worked through a series of amendments to a wide-ranging bill that was eventually adopted by the Senate with 50 votes plus the tie breaking ballot by Vice President Kamala Harris.
For Democrats, the long hours paid off when the Senate on Sunday night eventually passed the inflation reduction bill originally proposed by Biden and adopted with several amendments, including those by Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema on the financial provisions, a USA Today report said.
According to the report, the Senate saw a rare weekend session for the Democrats push hard to pass their ambitious bill known before leaving Capitol Hill for their traditional August recess.
Democrats advanced the bill, called the Inflation Reduction Act, through the budget reconciliation process, which means they had to clear a few procedural hurdles to send the bill to the House for expected passage and eventually the President's desk.
"The Democrats in our Senate caucus have stayed unified throughout the night," Senator Chris Coons told ABC News during a break between votes.
"Every single amendment vote of the dozens we've taken so far we've defeated Republican efforts to knock down this important, even landmark piece of legislation that will reduce prescription drug prices, reduce health care costs, reduce the deficit and make a big down payment on combating climate change."
Also speaking to ABC News, South Dakota Republican Mike Rounds said party members would keep fighting passage of the bill.
"It's not going to do much to help inflation. We're still going to have a problem there," he also said on the Sunday show. "And yet at the same time, they're going to be collecting about real close to $740 billion in new tax revenue over the next supposedly 5 to 10 years, but most certainly it's not going to help get us through a tight time in which we're worried about coming out of a recession."
What's the budget reconciliation process?
Senate Democrats used the budget reconciliation process to move the bill, allowing them to avoid the 60-vote threshold to overcome a Republican filibuster. The process allowed the bill to pass with 50 votes, meaning all they needed was a strict-party line vote with their 50-50 majority (Vice President Harris cast the tie-breaking vote). No Republicans supported the final version.
The process had one major caveat -- provisions in the bill must be related to the budget in some capacity. Any bill that is on track to reconciliation must first go through the Senate Parliamentarian, who combs through the bill for any violation of what's been dubbed the Byrd Rule. It was named after Virginia Democratic Senator Harry F. Byrd, considered a fiscal hawk.
On Saturday morning, Democrats got a good start with the good news when Parliamentarian Elizabeth Macdonough deemed that reconciliation could be applied to large parts of the bill regarding climate initiatives and allowing Medicare to negotiate lower drug costs for seniors.
"We are one step closer to finally taking on Big Pharma and lowering Rx drug prices for millions of Americans," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement.
Last week, Schumer and Senator Joe Manchin clinched an unexpected deal on the massive over $485 billion bill that would combat climate change, reduce prescription drug prices and lower the federal deficit.
The New York Times described the Democrats' victory as being within a shouting distance of getting the climate change bill endorsed which has wide ranging provisions on carbon emissions and tax breaks for using non fossil fuels and electric vehicles instead of gasoline driven cars.
On Saturday evening, the Senate agreed by a party-line vote of 50-50 with Harris breaking the tie and starting what could have been up to 20 hours of debate, equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. But leaders of both parties opted to move straight to votes on amendments after only a few hours of debate.
Later in the night, Democrats received more welcome news as Schumer's office announced that the Congressional Budget Office confirmed that the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 meets reconciliation instructions, allowing the bill to move forward on the Senate floor.
The bill will "lower costs for American families. It's going to address some of the basic need's families have been having for generations in terms of daily costs of life that are too expensive that are going to be lowered because of this work", Harris told reporters after casting the tie-breaking vote.
Once debate ended, a "Vote-a-Rama" on amendments to the bill began. Independent Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders, a former presidential candidate, had called the voting process a circus of "Vote-a-Rama" after he was disappointed that Schumer had made the BBB initiative tepid with the amendments of Manchin and Sinema.
What's a "Vote-a-Rama"?
In a "Vote-a-Rama", Senators can offer up an unlimited number of amendments to a bill but the process is expedited. There is only one minute allocated for debate, equally divided between both sides. Then, Senators are given 10 minutes to vote. This process repeats for every single amendment. The first amendment was offered by Sanders, shortly after 11.30 p.m. Saturday. His proposal would have sped up Medicare's ability to negotiate lower pharmaceutical costs and expanded the list of drugs on which they could impose price caps. It failed 99-1.
The Senate last held a "Vote-a-Rama" a year ago when it adopted a budget resolution for fiscal year 2022. In that instance, Senators offered up 43 amendments for a vote, leading to a session that lasted around 14 hours.
This weekend's "Vote-a-Rama" was even longer, lasting nearly 16 hours before a final vote was held. The majority of amendments were proposed by Republicans, on issues like the IRS, energy production, and immigration. Many failed 50-50 with no Senator crossing party lines.
Sanders proposed the most amendments on the Democratic side of the aisle. None of the amendments overnight passed. Republicans blocked a proposed $35 cap on insulin copays on Sunday morning, arguing the scope of the cap didn't fall under reconciliation. The amendment only targets the insulin cap on private insurers; Democrats' plan to lower insulin costs under Medicare remains intact.
Ten Republican Senators needed to vote with Democrats to protect the cap, but only seven voted to keep the cap in place: Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, John Kennedy of Louisiana, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Dan Sullivan of Alaska.
Just when the end of amendment votes became imminent on Sunday afternoon, Senate Minority Whip John Thune began negotiations with Sinema to exempt some businesses owned by private equity from the 15 per cent corporate income tax. Democratic Senators Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Mark Kelly of Arizona, Jon Ossoff of Georgia, Jacky Rosen of Nevada and Raphael Warnock of Georgia joined Sinema and all Republicans senators in support, with the amendment passing 57-43.
The exemptions eliminate $35 billion in revenue from the bill -- which has been a sticking point for Manchin, who has prioritized deficit savings throughout months of negotiations. To offset the lost revenue, Senator Mark Warner offered an amendment to extend loss limitations that some businesses can use for tax deductions. The amendment passed by a party-line vote before the bill moved for final passage.
What's the point of it? Most amendments from Republicans, who were furious over the deal which was negotiated without their input.
Republican-proposed amendments mostly failed, with the exception of Thune's amendment exempting some businesses from the 15 per cent corporate tax rate. But the "Vote-a-Rama" allowed Republicans to make Democrats vote on tough issues that could be used for ads on the campaign trail this fall.
The deal also incited the anger of some on the left, who have criticized the bill's investment in new fossil fuel development – a concession likely due to the importance natural gas and coal are to the economy of Manchin's home state.
Sanders on the Senate floor last week had urged lawmakers "to do everything possible to take on the greed of the fossil fuel industry", and promised to offer an amendment nixing fossil fuel investments in the bill.