WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Saturday to advance a sweeping climate and economic bill with the support of all 50 Democrats, bringing long-stalled elements of President Joe Biden's agenda one step closer to reality.
The procedural vote on the filibuster-proof package was 51-50, with all Republicans opposing the motion to begin debate and Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote. If that support holds, it is enough to pass the bill through the Senate and send it to the House in the coming days.
The legislation, called the Inflation Reduction Act, includes major spending to combat climate change and extend health care coverage, paid for with savings on prescription drugs and taxes on corporations. It puts hundreds of billions of dollars toward deficit reduction.
"This is one of the most comprehensive and impactful bills Congress has seen in decades," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the floor before the vote.
"It's going to mean a lot for the families and the people of our country," Harris told NBC News as she arrived to break the 50-50 tie.
The procedural vote, during a rare weekend session, kicks off several hours of debate, followed by a "vote-a-rama" — a process in which senators can offer virtually unlimited amendments that require a simple majority of votes to adopt.
The legislation isn’t subject to the filibuster — it is being pursued through a special process called reconciliation, which allows Democrats to pass it on their own. But the process includes limits; policies included in the bill must be related to spending and taxes and the legislation has to comply with a strict set of budget rules. It's the same process Democrats used to pass the American Rescue Plan in 2021 and Republicans used to pass the Trump tax cuts of 2017.
Before Saturday's vote, the Senate parliamentarian ruled that key Democratic provisions on clean energy and allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices passed muster and could be included in the inflation package, Democratic leaders said.
"While there was one unfortunate ruling in that the inflation rebate is more limited in scope," Schumer said, "the overall program remains intact and we are one step closer to finally taking on Big Pharma and lowering Rx drug prices for millions of Americans.”
The Democrats-only package, which includes several pieces of Biden's Build Back Better agenda, was long thought to be dead after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., rejected a larger bill in December. He cut a deal last week with Schumer, pleasantly surprising many of his Democratic colleagues, and has since been on a media blitz to sell it.
“It's a red, white and blue bill,” Manchin said recently on MSNBC, calling it “one of the greatest pieces of legislation” and "the bill that we need to fight inflation, to have more energy."
On Thursday, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., following a week of silence, signed off on the bill after securing some changes to it.
Sinema forced Democrats to remove a provision that would have limited the carried interest tax break, which enables wealthy hedge fund and investment managers to pay a lower tax rate.
"We had no choice," Schumer told reporters.
Instead, it was replaced by a new 1% excise tax on stock buybacks that is expected to bring in $74 billion — five times as much as the carried interest provision, Schumer said. Sinema also secured $4 billion in funding for drought prevention in Arizona and other western states.
Before her changes, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that the bill would reduce the deficit by about $100 billion over a decade, with additional potential for $200 billion in revenue as a result of beefing up IRS resources for enforcement.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., promised “hard votes for the Democrats” in the vote-a-rama.
“The question is, at the end, are those amendments going to be amendments actually that might change the bill? Could make it better. Might make it harder to pass in the House, who knows?” Thune said Friday.
Some Democrats are worried about Republicans proposing poison pill amendments on contentious issues such as immigration and crime that could win a majority of votes in the Senate — picking off some moderates and vulnerable senators facing re-election this fall — but alienate other Democrats and disrupt the fragile deal.
"I certainly cannot support it, if extraneous provisions get adopted, particularly pejorative immigration provisions that have nothing to do with the health, welfare and security of the American people," Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said this week on MSNBC.
On Saturday, a handful of Senate Democrats took to Twitter to urge their colleagues to hold the line and vote down amendments that could jeopardize the package.
"I’ll vote NO on all amendments, even those I agree with," tweeted Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn. "This bill makes historic progress on climate action and lowering prescription drug costs. It has 50 votes, and we need to stick together to keep it that way."
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., agreed with that strategy. "There are a number of us who have already tweeted that we're going to be voting no on amendments that we like and we don't like," he told reporters Saturday.
"There is such a moral urgency ... to get a bill across the line that's going to deal with the existential threat of climate change. I think that's motivating and I'm seeing even more unity than normal."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Friday the amendment process would be unpleasant. "What will vote-a-rama be like? It’ll be like hell," he said.