Senate Dems Finally Pass Sweeping Spending Bill After Chaotic ‘Vote-a-Rama’

·6 min read
Anna Rose Layden/Getty
Anna Rose Layden/Getty

After more than a year of painstaking and dramatic negotiations, Democrats on Capitol Hill finally passed a sweeping climate, tax, and health care bill Sunday afternoon.

It wasn’t quite as sweeping as most Democrats had wanted. What was once supposed to be a $5 trillion bill—and then a $3.5 trillion, and then $3 trillion, and then $1.5 trillion, and then $1 trillion—ended up as a $400 billion measure, spread over the next 10 years, that would actually decrease deficits by more than $300 billion over that time period by closing tax loopholes.

It’s hardly the package President Joe Biden and the vast majority of Democrats had aimed for, but it’s the one Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) would allow them to have. And even if Democrats had hoped for more, they were ecstatic to cap off one of Biden’s best weeks in office with the legislation’s passage.

“After more than a year of hard work, the Senate is making history,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said just before the bill passed. “This bill will kickstart the era of affordable clean energy in America, it’s a game changer, it’s a turning point and it’s been a long time coming.”

The Senate approved the bill Sunday afternoon 51-50, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all Republicans voting against it. Vice President Kamala Harris broke the tie and approved the bill thanks to the legislative process called reconciliation, which eliminates the Senate’s 60-vote threshold for bills that meet certain conditions.

The legislation now heads to the U.S. House, where there are no serious concerns that the Democratic majority there will sink the legislation that finally got unanimous Senate Democratic support.

“Today, Senate Democrats sided with American families over special interests, voting to lower the cost of prescription drugs, health insurance, and everyday energy costs and reduce the deficit, while making the wealthiest corporations finally pay their fair share,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “I ran for President promising to make government work for working families again, and that is what this bill does—period.”

In a reflection of their biggest political challenge right now, Democrats branded the bill as the “Inflation Reduction Act,” packed with a grab-bag of various policy priorities on climate change, health care, and tax reform.

‘Getting Rolled’: McConnell Was Outfoxed With His Own Playbook

The bill’s passage followed a nearly 16-hour debate over amendments—dubbed a “vote-a-rama”—that saw senators from both sides of the aisle offer various changes to the wide-ranging legislation, with Republicans hoping to tank it all together.

The process was not without roadblocks for Democrats, some coming from within their own party. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats and has chastised the bill for not being broad enough, proposed amendments that sought to restore elements of the original (and expensive) “Build Back Better” plan, such as an expanded child tax credit. The measure, like many others, failed—with Sanders often as the only vote.

Sinema took issue with a 15 percent corporate minimum tax that would include private equity firms, and an amendment proposed by Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-SD) was ultimately passed exempting private equity businesses.

After a brief nail-biting period, an agreement was eventually reached to fund that carveout through an extension of pass-through-loss limitations, which allows individuals to declare business losses on their personal tax returns. That amendment, proposed by Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), passed and overruled the Thune amendment, clearing the way for the overall bill.

Still, Republicans found ways to bite back. An amendment to cap insulin funding at $35 for private insurance was struck down by Republicans, even as some joined Democrats in voting for it. The $35 cap will instead be solely for Medicare recipients.

Biden and Democrats spent much of 2021 trying to get the multi-trillion dollar Build Back Better package across the finish line. But Manchin balked at spending such a sum given rising inflation—and opposed many of the key climate measures—while Sinema killed proposals to raise the money to pay for the bill by modifying a tax code that is structured to benefit Wall Street and big business.

As the November midterms drew nearer, most observers assumed the chances of Democrats using the reconciliation process to pass a party-line bill had essentially vanished. But Manchin shocked the Capitol in late July, when he and Schumer announced they’d struck a deal on the broad contours of the bill.

While much smaller than Build Back Better, the legislation contains proposals that most Democrats see as huge achievements.

It devotes $300 billion to climate change measures that aim to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030, something seen near-universally among Democrats as a massive win. It contains one of the party’s most long-awaited reforms: allowing Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices. And it also institutes a minimum tax on corporations of 15 percent, which could raise hundreds of billions of dollars to pay for the programs in the bill and pay down the deficit.

Republicans sought to cast the bill as a tax-and-spend spree that could hamper the economy just as it works to move past crushing inflation and two straight quarters of negative growth. Some early analyses have indicated it might have a negligible impact on inflation—contradicting both Democrats’ brand for the bill and some GOP criticism.

The GOP has also argued the bill would break Biden’s pledge to not raise taxes on people making under $400,000 a year. Early analyses of this particular point are incomplete, Bloomberg reported.

“Democrats want to pass huge, job-killing tax hikes in the middle of a recession they created,” argued Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) last week.

Predictably, Sinema became the last roadblock, and spent a week publicly silent on the bill while raising objections that leaked later to the press. Ultimately, the Arizona senator extracted her concessions—which included eliminating a tax loophole that benefits big finance—and gave her sign-off to the bill.

Progressives who were eager to leverage unified Democratic control of Washington to finally pass long-awaited priorities were disappointed. Before the Senate advanced the bill, Sanders called it an “extremely modest” piece of legislation.

“We are living a moment of unprecedented crises,” Sanders said. “This bill does virtually nothing to address any of them.”

Still, Senate passage of the bill caps off one of Biden’s very best stretches during his nearly two years in office.

In the last 10 days, Biden saw the House and Senate pass a high-tech manufacturing measure, Manchin reach an agreement with Schumer on the reconciliation bill, Republicans take heat for voting down veterans legislation (only to then reverse themselves and pass the legislation when they realized their political blunder), gas prices hit a summer low, the U.S. military take out a top Al Qaeda leader, voters give Democrats new hope by overwhelmingly and surprisingly rejecting a ballot measure to ban abortion in Kansas, unemployment match a 50-year low, and the U.S. report that more than 500,000 jobs were added in July—a strong indication that the economy is not in a recession.

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