WASHINGTON – Democrats will push ahead on restraining pharmaceutical prices and extending health insurance subsidies for millions of Americans, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer affirmed Tuesday, backing President Joe Biden’s call for his party to settle for a pared-down economic package and effectively concede to a pivotal senator.
Aiming to craft the bill and approve it over likely unanimous Republican opposition by Congress' recess next month, Democrats were already hailing it as a victory. Passage would give the party an achievement ahead of November voting in which Republicans seem on track to win majorities in the House and perhaps the Senate.
“This is something we’ve waited for for a very long time," Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters. “It’s going to be a major, major accomplishment to help people bring down inflation.”
But that glossed over an accompanying reality — Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has again forced his party to narrow the measure's sweep, this time making it abandon hopes of using it to combat climate change.
Such initiatives are a passionate goal for younger and progressive voters, who are showing signs of souring on Democrats for their inability to pass strong legislation curbing carbon emissions that warm the planet. Biden has said he will take executive action to address the environmental crisis, and congressional Democrats are urging him to do that aggressively.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and other Democrats have said Manchin's views on climate are out of synch with the party. Heinrich questioned last week whether Manchin, one of Congress' most conservative and fossil-fuel friendly Democrats, should remain as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
“It’s not fair to string people along for a year and not come to a conclusion,” Heinrich said Tuesday. Heinrich has criticized Manchin for repeatedly forcing Democrats to dramatically shrink the economic legislation. Manchin's backing is needed for his party to prevail in the 50-50 Senate, along with Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote.
Manchin upended a roughly $2 trillion, 10-year social and environment bill in December after the House approved it. He did not attend a weekly lunch Tuesday that Democratic senators hold.
Earlier, Manchin reiterated his concerns that a larger economic measure could further worsen inflation and was unapologetic. “I’m not stringing you along. Don’t you believe inflation is the No. 1 thing in America right that’s hurting every human being?" he told reporters.
Asked if he felt Manchin had negotiated honestly with him over the months, Schumer said, “Senator Manchin and I know each other a long time. We have many disagreements. I am very strenuous when I talk to him about my disagreements. But we always try to show each other respect."
It remains unclear exactly what the final measure will look like or when it will be ready for votes. As of now, the package would save $288 billion over the coming decade, largely because its price controls would make government drug purchases cheaper. Some money would pay for health insurance subsidies for consumers, with the rest used to slightly reduce federal deficits.
Some Democrats want the bill to be expanded to include other initiatives, such as including billions Biden wants to strengthen f ederal efforts to contend with the COVID-19 pandemic. Many are skeptical Manchin will sign off on that.
Senate staffers from both parties plan to meet Thursday with the Senate parliamentarian, who must decide if any provisions should be dropped from the measure for violating the chamber's budget rules.
One item that might be vulnerable would require drug makers to pay the government rebates if they raise prices beyond inflation increases. If the parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, says those provisions should be removed, that could reduce the measure's savings by as much as $100 billion, a big blow.
The still-developing legislation would authorize Medicare to negotiate how much it pays for some prescription drugs and require rebates if price increases exceed inflation. It would cap Medicare recipients' out-of-pocket drug costs at $2,000 a year, give them free vaccines and expand prescription drug subsidies for some low-income people.
It would also extend federal payments, now expiring in January, that help around 13 million people who don't get employer-paid or government health coverage pay premiums for their private insurance.
Republicans are opposing Democrats' measure. They say it would discourage pharmaceutical research and object to shoring up federal health insurance subsidies created in former President Barack Obama's 2010 health care overhaul.
“It's pretty unclear where they’re going," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “But they’re desperate to pass something on a party-line basis as rapidly as possible. That’s in all likelihood bad news for the American people."
Manchin has said he would consider climate change legislation in September once he's seen updated inflation figures. Approving a measure in the heat of election campaigns would be extremely difficult.