Senate Democrats push sweeping climate, health care bill as Republicans try to slow passage

WASHINGTON – The sun rose Sunday morning on Capitol Hill as bleary-eyed senators worked through a series of amendments to a wide-ranging climate, health care and tax spending bill.

For Democrats, the long hours paid off when the Senate eventually passed the Inflation Reduction Act Sunday afternoon.

It was part of a rare weekend session for the Senate as Democrats push 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 President Joe Biden’s desk.

INFLATION REDUCTION ACT DETAILS: Sen. Joe Manchin and Senate Leader Schumer reach deal on energy, drug prices, taxes

"The Democrats in our Senate caucus have stayed unified throughout the night," Sen Chris Coons, D-Del., said on ABC's "This Week" Sunday morning 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 combatting climate change."

On the same show, South Dakota GOP Mike Rounds said Republicans 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 Kamala 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 Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr., a fiscal hawk.

On Saturday morning, Democrats got some good news when they learned that 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, D-N.Y. said in a statement.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, speaks during a news conference about the Inflation Reduction Act outside the U.S. Capitol on August 4, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, speaks during a news conference about the Inflation Reduction Act outside the U.S. Capitol on August 4, 2022 in Washington, DC.

Later Saturday evening, 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.

What led up to this?

Last week, Schumer, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., unexpectedly announced a deal on a massive spending bill that would combat climate change, reduce prescription drug prices and lower the federal deficit.

With Republicans expected to do well in the November midterm elections, the bill is a huge victory for Biden and congressional Democrats after they had lost faith in Manchin for shooting down the president's much more ambitious Build Back Better plan last year.

What happened first and when?

On Saturday evening, the Senate agreed by a party-line vote of 50-50 with Harris breaking the tie start 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.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 30, 2021.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 30, 2021.

The bill will "lower costs for American families. It's gonna address some of the basic needs 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.

What’s a vote-a-rama?

In a vote-a-rama, senators can offer up an unlimited amount 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 Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., 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 co-pays 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.

'I'LL MOVE FORWARD': Sen. Kyrsten Sinema backs Inflation Reduction Act, giving Biden the votes for Senate passage

Just when the end of amendment votes became immient on Sunday afternoon, Sen. Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., began negotiations with Democrat Sen. Kyrsten Sinema to exempt some businesses owned by private equity from the 15% corporate income tax. Democratic Sens. 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 Synema 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, Sen. Mark Warner, Va., offered an amendment to extend loss limitations that some business 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 business from the 15% 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 falll.

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.

Progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on the Senate floor Wednesday, 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.

Sanders' amendment failed as the bill was contingent on Manchin's support.

Once all proposed amendments were voted on and senators agreed on the final language of the bill, it went to a final vote for passage with a party-line vote of 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Senate begins 'vote-a-rama' on Inflation Reduction Act