US: Senate Democrats clear first hurdle on healthcare, climate bills

Democrats are passing the bill using a procedure called reconciliation, which doesn't allow for a Republican filibuster.

Washington: US Senate Democrats advanced their long-delayed health care, tax and climate bill following months of uncertainty over whether the major legislation could be passed before the November mid-term elections.

The Senate voted on Saturday along party lines, 50-50, to start debate on the measure, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie as President of the Senate, reports dpa news agency.

Democrats are passing the bill using a procedure called reconciliation, which doesn’t allow for a Republican filibuster.

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“This is one of the most comprehensive and impactful bills Congress has seen in decades,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer.

“It will reduce inflation. It will lower prescription drug costs. It will fight climate change. It will close tax loopholes and it will reduce the deficit. It will help every citizen in this country and make America a much better place.”

The bill would allow the federal government to begin to negotiate drug prices in Medicare, albeit slowly, and would create incentives and grants to combat the climate crisis, two major political priorities that Democrats are hoping to run on this fall.

For congressional Democrats and President Joe Biden, it would mark a welcome legislative bright spot.

After Saturday’s vote, lawmakers were expected to begin a lengthy series of votes on amendments to the bill, dubbed vote-a-rama.

Under the reconciliation process, the minority party can offer unlimited amendments, and it typically takes the opportunity to propose politically contentious ideas designed to block the bill or, at minimum, force the majority to take politically unfavourable votes.

South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said the process will be “like hell. They deserve this”.

“I’m hoping that we can come up with proposals that will make sense to a few of them and they’ll abandon this jihad they’re on,” he said on Friday.

Republicans argue the bill will make inflation worse. “Democrats want to run through hundreds of billions of dollars in tax hikes and hundreds of billions of dollars in reckless spending,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Saturday.

If Democrats are able to stick together through the amendment series, they hope to give final passage to the bill as early as Sunday morning. If approved, it would go to Biden’s desk for his signature.

Declared dead several times over the past year, the Democrats’ sweeping legislation was resurrected following secret talks between Schumer and the most conservative Senate Democrat, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin.

Once Manchin and Schumer cut a deal on a plan, attention turned to another frequent outlier in the Democratic ranks, Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who axed the bill’s tightening of a carried interest tax loophole benefiting high-income investors and is expected to add new funding to combat drought, although those details are still undefined.

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