Democrats could see a bruising clash with Sanders over economic bill

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Democrats are bracing for a grueling weekend of vote-a-rama in the hopes of finally passing their long-sought economic bill, known as the Inflation Reduction Act. 

Republicans have vowed to force a series of tough votes in opposition of the plan. But some of lawmakers’ most painful votes could come from one of the Senate’s foremost progressive crusaders. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) says he is planning to put senators on the record with proposed amendments to Democrats’ sprawling tax, health care and climate bill, as the Senate prepares to hunker down for the marathon voting session.  

Sanders was key to helping craft Democrats’ earlier Build Back Better Act and has bristled over the scaled-down Inflation Reduction Act. But his chance to force floor votes on key issues important to progressives could lead to headaches for the party. 

While Sanders voiced satisfaction with certain parts the narrower plan in floor remarks earlier this week, he also made pointed remarks at the bill, which he said “does virtually nothing to address the enormous crises that working families all across this country are facing today.” 

The Vermont senator specifically announced he would be introducing an amendment “to make sure that Medicare pays no more for prescription drugs than the [Veterans Affairs]. He also pushed for measures to provide “comprehensive dental vision and hearing benefits,” in addition to lowering “the Medicare eligibility age to at least 60” and to extend the solvency of Medicare. 

“Given that this is the last reconciliation bill that we will be considering this year, it is the only opportunity that we have to do something significant to the American people that requires only 50 votes, and that cannot be filibustered,” he stressed from the floor of the upper chamber.  

Sanders told The Hill on Thursday that he is still finalizing his amendments, and is looking at areas like “health care, childcare, and some other issues.”

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced a deal with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on the bill last week, months after talks around the Build Back Better Act fell apart largely due to opposition from the West Virginia centrist. 

Among the measures tucked into the new deal are billion-dollar investments in climate programs, text aimed at reducing prescription drug prices and measures to extend health care subsidies.  

The bill also contains tax measures targeting large corporations that Democrats say is intended to bring in revenue to help cut the nation’s deficit, and, in turn, combat inflation. However, there is debate among experts around how much the bill would impact rising costs. 

The agreement between Manchin and Schumer was a welcome surprise for Democrats. But many Democrats say they wanted much more. 

“It’s not everything we want, but it’s pretty rare that you get everything you want in a single bill,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told reporters on Thursday, while touting the “powerful progressive priorities that we are about to get through Congress.” 

The new bill included some provisions Democrats previously sought as part of Build Back Better, but is a fraction of the earlier plan, which initially contained Sanders’s proposal to expand Medicare to cover dental, hearing and vision for recipients, as well as measures seeking for historic investments in housing, child care, education and other party-backed priorities.  

“It’s been a long dry spell, and I am enthusiastic about what we are on the verge of getting done,” said Warren, who added she won’t be filing amendments. 

Democrats are hoping to pass the plan using a process known as budget reconciliation, which would allow the party to approve the legislation with a simple majority, bypassing the usual 60-vote filibuster. 

But to use the procedure, which has strict rules on how it can be deployed, Democrats have a list of obstacles they have to overcome before they can bring the bill to the floor for a vote. That includes what’s known as vote-a-rama — during which senators can offer a series of amendments for a chance to influence legislation before a final vote on the overall bill. 

Senators don’t expect the vote-a-rama itself to attract much public attention, but the votes that come out of it can. 

Republicans, who are overwhelmingly opposed to the plan, have been sharpening their knives ahead of the event. They plan to bring up a series of hard votes for Democrats that could be used as ammunition as midterm elections approach. 

The last time Congress saw a vote-a-rama for a reconciliation bill was last year, when Democrats used budget reconciliation to pass the American Rescue Plan, a sweeping coronavirus relief bill. 

At the time, Sanders introduced an amendment to raise minimum wage to $15 per hour. But the amendment was expected to fail after the Senate parliamentarian, who decides what legislation complies with reconciliation rules, found the wage increase in violation.  

Sanders had urged for the parliamentarian to be overruled. However, the amendment failed to pass after eight Democrats joined Republicans in voting down the proposal.  

Some Democrats say they could support Sanders’s new proposals, but they might not survive if they endanger the larger bill’s chances of passage, as Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have drawn bold red lines around certain measures. 

“I obviously will very likely agree with Senator Sanders’s bills, but we can’t do anything to endanger this base bill,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) told The Hill on Thursday when pressed about Sanders’s comments. “And we’ve got to be very alert on that, because we’ve heard very clearly that a lot of our Democratic partners are not willing to support that.” 

“The outcome I’d like is for us to vote on the bill and get on with it really,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) told The Hill. “So, as much as I like Bernie and all that, I don’t know what his amendment is. It depends on what it is, I might vote for it.” 

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) also acknowledged the razor-thin majority Democrats has to work with in the Senate to pass the bill, while urging for the party to remain unified as they close in on the finishing line.  

“I think we recognize at the end of the day; we need 50 votes to pass this bill, and we’ll have a strategy for that to be effective,” Cardin told The Hill. “So, we recognize we may have some challenges with amendments, but at the end of the day, we all have to come together.” 

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