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With Manchin's surprise, Democrats finally believe they have robust agenda to run on

Democrats are ready to sell voters on climate action, lower prescription drug costs and corporate tax increases ahead of a tough midterm: "We needed a boost."
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Democrats suddenly feel as if they have a robust agenda to run on heading into the fall midterms.

The surprise climate, health care and tax deal that Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., cut this week with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has handed Democrats some ammunition to combat what may be their biggest political weakness this election year: rising prices.

“If you want to look at the big MO — the momentum — it is with us right now and we’ve needed that,” Rep. Cheri Bustos, head of the House Democrats’ campaign arm last cycle, told NBC News. “We needed a boost, and just from a mental perspective, we just have to start feeling like we’re getting some wins. I think we were down in the dumps.”

No one is saying Manchin’s support of the Inflation Reduction Act is the panacea to solve all of Democrats’ election-year woes. Biden’s poll numbers are abysmal, and Democrats have a razor-thin majority in the 50-50 Senate. House Democrats hold only a five-seat majority, and history shows that the party occupying the White House typically loses dozens of seats in a president’s first midterm. Campaign prognosticators still believe that Republicans are greatly favored to flip the House.

But Democrats believe that with a stronger record to run on, some targeted incumbents will be able to hang on, preventing Republicans from turning 2022 into a big wave election year.

The package is “going to change people’s lives. There’s a lot of really important pieces, elements of this legislation that will matter to the people I represent,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., one of the most vulnerable Democrats seeking re-election this year.

Spanberger noted the bill calls for climate investments in conservation and agricultural practices that will help producers in her rural-suburban district between Washington and Richmond.

“I don’t see a world in which I’m going to say no to these things,” she said.

In addition to $369 billion in energy and climate funding, the Manchin-Schumer deal includes provisions aimed at easing pocketbook strains.

It would empower Medicare to negotiate the price of certain drugs with the pharmaceutical industry, an idea backed by 83% of Americans in a survey last fall by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. It would also cap yearly out-of-pocket costs for seniors on Medicare at $2,000.

“We’re finally at the precipice of getting that done. That will dramatically reduce costs for the average American that has to pay exorbitant prices for prescription drugs,” Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., a top GOP target in a swing Orange County district, told NBC News.

And the deal would extend Affordable Care Act funding for three years, preventing premium hikes this fall for millions of Americans that many Democrats were fearful about.

“That ability to have that three-year extension of lower ACA subsidies, that’ll make a huge difference in people’s lives as well,” Levin said.

Democratic strategists have argued that tackling the costs of prescription drugs would be a major boost for the party if they can pass the bill, saying it would draw a contrast with the GOP among voters currently disenchanted with inaction from both parties on the issue.

“Getting prescription drug prices down continues to be the Democrats’ single most credible answer to inflation. This is a wildly popular policy,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “This is a really powerful move and a really powerful issue.”

Lake said many voters “think that politicians of both parties have talked about it for decades” and that it doesn’t get done because they believe “both parties are bought by special interests.”

She added: “This administration has gotten a lot done but people don’t know it. And they think it’s old or past. So this is a current accomplishment in very important areas.”

Republicans, however, are relishing the fight over what they're calling a massive tax-and-spending package. At a time of record inflation, they argue that more government spending and hiking taxes on corporations will only propel the country into a recession. 

“I’m gonna run on it. I’m gonna pound on the other side,” said Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., whose district went for Joe Biden in 2020. “Higher taxes is not a strong platform."

"Our companies are investing because of the [Trump] tax reform," he said. "Doing this minimum tax will actually undermine investment in our own country, which will reduce construction jobs. It’s bad economics."

The package would create new revenue through a 15% corporate minimum tax but not include new taxes on individuals.

Schumer has told rank-and-file members he wants to pass the full package by next week. Because Democrats are taking up the bill through the Senate's reconciliation process, they will need all 50 of their members, plus Vice President Kamala Harris, to pass it. If that happens, the House would then return from its summer recess and take it up the week of Aug. 8, giving Democrats roughly three months to campaign on it.

“I think it’s going to be important that our constituents understand that we are fighting to reduce their costs — that’s exactly what this is about — and a major investment in climate change,” said Sen. Patty Murray, a veteran Democrat who represents usually reliably blue Washington state but has been targeted by Republicans who are trying to expand the Senate map this cycle.

Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., dismissed questions about whether the legislation would affect his 2022 prospects but said the reconciliation package is “important to the people of Arizona.”

“As I’ve traveled across the state and talked to seniors, the thing that comes up all the time is the prohibitive costs of some prescription drugs,” Kelly, a top GOP target, said in an interview. “And I’ve got seniors that have to make decisions on whether they can buy groceries or fill their prescription — or they’re cutting pills in half, or they can’t pay their electric bill. So this is significant.”

It’s not just the sweeping reconciliation package that Democrats feel good about. Congress this week passed a bipartisan package to boost computer chip production in the U.S. to shore up national security and compete with China. Earlier this summer, lawmakers also passed a historic package to address gun violence following a spate of mass shootings across the country.

And Democrats also said that they are finally receiving word about which projects in their home states are being funded by the $550 billion infrastructure package that was signed into law last year. That means news conferences and ribbon-cuttings.

On top of those legislative wins, Democrats say they are also closely watching the yawning gap between the two parties when it comes to small-dollar donations. Small-dollar fundraising to the GOP has stalled this summer, while similar donations to Democrats continue to grow, perhaps due to things like the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade and the ongoing Jan. 6 investigation.

“We’re still dealing with the same headwinds that we’ve had, but it’s good to be able to point to some more successes,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., a GOP target who is touting the deal’s electric vehicle and solar investments. “The infrastructure bill is big, but [the climate and energy bill] is a really important part of our agenda.

“We’ve got to land the plane,” he added. “On the solar stuff — this is jobs for my people.”