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Democrats pull off climate, health and tax bill in weekend sessions

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

A big victory in Congress today for President Biden and his party. After a lengthy debate that stretched from yesterday, through the night and into this afternoon, the Senate passed a major spending bill titled the Inflation Reduction Act. It's a $700 billion-plus package of tax and spending measures that Democrats say will fight inflation, reduce drug prices and help counter climate change. The final vote was strictly along party lines, with all 50 Republicans opposed and Vice President Kamala Harris casting her tiebreaking vote in favor. Joining us now with the latest is NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Ron, welcome.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Daniel.

ESTRIN: We have been talking about this measure for days. Now it appears to be a done deal. Are there more hurdles to come?

ELVING: Never say never.

ESTRIN: Right.

ELVING: But there can be hope. There can be the thought, at this point, that if there is such a thing as a glide path when you're landing this big a measure under these circumstances, we would appear to be on that path now. Now, this measure vastly expands the national effort to combat climate change. It extends many provisions of Obamacare, and it creates a 15% minimum tax for billion-dollar corporations, among other changes. Now, the House is expected to return to Washington this week. And it appears the previous consensus among Democrats there will hold, and approval will come. Then it would be on to the president for signature, and that would indeed be a sweet moment for President Biden.

ESTRIN: Now, quite a few of the Democrats in the House have said that they were disappointed in the package negotiated in the Senate. They've said it was a shadow of the original Biden Build Back Better legislation from a year ago that would have spent several times as much on climate and health and education and other programs, right?

ELVING: Yes. There's no question this is a scaled-down version of the original Biden plans. And there's no question that progressives regret the lost opportunity. Here, for example, is what Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont had to say about it this weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS: I want to take a moment to say a few words about the so-called Inflation Reduction Act that we are debating this evening. And I say so-called, by the way, because according to the CBO and other economic organizations that have studied this bill, it will, in fact, have a minimal impact on inflation.

ELVING: But in the end, Sanders made clear he would not scuttle the bill based on his disappointment. It's perhaps a classic case of accepting half a loaf or maybe a third or fourth of a loaf as better than none.

ESTRIN: Yeah. Well, remind us why one - just one senator alone - Bernie Sanders or Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema - could threaten to scuttle the bill on their own.

ELVING: Because the Democrats needed every single one of their votes to get to 50 and achieve a tie, which then allows Vice President Harris to step into her role as Senate president and cast the tiebreaker. Now, that is Senate procedure. And here again, it's rare to see it used, but this is a Senate equally divided between the two parties. So Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer needed to get every last one of his members on board in order to pass any version of this legislation.

ESTRIN: And they could do it without the Republicans mounting a filibuster because it's a budget bill considered under special rules?

ELVING: Exactly right. And it's considered under what's called the reconciliation process. This is a product of the budget reforms Congress passed back in the 1970s and that were really mobilized for major changes by President Reagan in the 1980s. So it allows measures affecting taxes and spending to be considered without being subject to filibuster. Just a simple majority prevails.

ESTRIN: OK. But that did not apply today when the Republicans managed to remove one provision affecting people who take insulin for diabetes. What was that about?

ELVING: It was, in substance, a bill that was originally offered by Georgia Democrat Raphael Warnock to cap the out-of-cost insulin costs of the - out-of-pocket costs, I should say - of insulin for diabetes patients. Now, this package capped those costs at $35 a month for people who are on Medicare or private insurance. The issue arose because the Senate parliamentarian ruled the cap could apply to Medicare, a government program, but not to private insurance. That would be outside the rules that apply to these reconciliation bills we were talking about. So to be included, it had to have 60 votes.

ESTRIN: OK. So there was an immediate vote to override that judgment. Seven Republicans joined all the Democrats in voting to do that - to include people on private insurance under the cap.

ELVING: That's right. Seven Republicans did cross the aisle. And, of course, it's a painful vote to ask them to take. But 43 Republicans did say no, and the provision was stripped out of the package. Now, many people were kind of scratching their heads as to why the Republicans would choose that particular hill to die on. But here's John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. He said it was undermining the whole reconciliation process if you start overruling the parliamentarian. So if you want to get this done, do it by some kind of separate legislation. And that is exactly what the Democrats will have to try to come back and do another day.

ESTRIN: Very briefly, Ron, what can we say about how this bill will affect Americans?

ELVING: It's not going to be an overnight game changer for the overall economy. And it may not mean that much in terms of inflation in the short run. So it may not be all that visible to most working families in the near term. But it should provide relief to some who are facing major health costs and move toward the goal of greater tax fairness. And down the road, it's expected to create a great number of jobs in clean energy and to provide some measure of hope in the fight against climate change.

ESTRIN: OK. NPR's senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Thank you, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Daniel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.

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