The U.S. Senate on Sunday repelled attempts to amend a $430 billion measure sought by President Joe Biden, as Democrats forged ahead with efforts to pass a bill aimed at controlling climate change and cutting prescription drug costs for the elderly.
Senators, working over the weekend to pass a bill central to Biden's domestic agenda, labored through the morning in hopes of passing the bill before starting an August recess. The bill also seeks to tighten enforcement on tax payments from corporations and the wealthy.
"The time is now to move forward with a big, bold package for the American people," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said at the start of debate on Saturday night.
He said the legislation contains "the boldest clean energy package in American history" to fight climate change while reducing consumer costs for some medicines and energy.
Democrats have drawn harsh attacks from Republicans over the legislation's $430 billion in new spending and more than $740 billion in new revenues.
Nevertheless, Democrats said their bill has deep support among voters. They hope its passage in the Senate and House of Representatives by the end of next week will help Democratic candidates in the Nov. 8 midterm elections at a time when Biden, their party leader, suffers from anemic public approval ratings.
Democrats are in a battle to retain their narrow control of the Senate and House of Representatives.
After spending several hours on Saturday debating the legislation, senators dug in for a "vote-a-rama" in which Democratic and Republican amendments were offered in rapid-fire.
Democrats hope to pass the bill with only a simple majority under a process called "reconciliation," bypassing a filibuster rule requiring 60 votes in the 100-seat chamber to advance most legislation. That will enable Democrats to pass it over Republican objections.
But they were unable to muster the votes necessary to retain a provision to cap soaring insulin costs at $35 a month on the private health insurance market, which fell outside the reconciliation rules. The proposal failed by three votes, despite support from seven Republicans. Democrats said the legislation would still cap insulin costs for those on Medicare. Democrats also turned away a Republican amendment to lower insulin costs that would have significantly changed the legislation and risked unraveling their coalition of 50 senators needed to keep the legislation on track.
Republicans forced votes on immigration amendments, including one to prompt hiring of more border patrol agents while cutting other expenditures.
Another Republican proposal would have set into law a Trump administration policy stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic that effectively closed down the U.S. asylum system. The Biden administration has been in a legal tussle to replace the "Title 42" policy with what it described as a more humane and orderly system for migrants crossing the southwestern border with Mexico.
While the Title 42 amendment was defeated on a 50-50 vote, it is likely to become a campaign issue ahead of the November elections, forcing vulnerable Democratic senators in border states, such as Mark Kelly in Arizona, to defend their opposition.
Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, a former presidential candidate aligned with Democrats, was soundly defeated on the first amendment offered. It would have vastly expanded the bill's number of prescription drugs eligible for price negotiation under the government's Medicare insurance plan for the elderly.
The 99-1 vote against the amendment drew only Sanders' support.
The Senate also overwhelmingly defeated a bid by Sanders to expand Medicare coverage for eyeglasses, hearing aids and dental care.
This medical part of the wide-ranging bill, negotiated over several months by Democrats, would allow Medicare to begin negotiating in 2026 with the pharmaceutical industry over prices on a limited number of prescription drugs as a way of reducing costs. It also would place a $2,000-per-year cap on out-of-pocket medication costs under a Medicare drug program.
Other portions of the bill would reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 40% in 2030 through federal incentives for the manufacture and purchase of electric vehicles and other "green" energy, with the goal of lowering energy prices overall at a time of high inflation.
The Senate also quickly defeated Republican amendments to cut a newly proposed fee on oil refiners to help pay for cleanup of toxic waste spills and another to immediately expand federal leasing of onshore oil drilling projects.
"Instead of pleading with dictators in other countries to increase oil and gas production, we should expand American production," Republican Senator John Barrasso pleaded unsuccessfully.
The 755-page bill includes a 15% minimum tax on corporations and the closing of loopholes that the wealthy can use to avoid paying taxes. It also would fund hiring of more IRS workers to better enforce tax payments and imposes a new excise tax on stock buybacks.
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