US Senate begins debate on domestic policy package; Manchin supports motion, Capito opposes

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Three weeks since the idea of the U.S. Senate approving a sweeping domestic policy plan seemed improbable, the chamber voted along party lines Saturday to move forward with a package addressing health care costs, energy and deficit reduction.

The vote started what Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., described as “the culmination of one of the most productive stretches in recent Senate memory” that included lawmakers approving bipartisan legislation addressing gun violence, computer chip production and benefits for military veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.

The chamber voted 51-50 to begin debate, with Vice President Kamala Harris delivering a tie-breaking vote. Democrats — including West Virginia’s Joe Manchin — united in support of the motion to proceed as Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Republican colleagues opposed the action.

The Inflation Reduction Act is the byproduct of discussions between Schumer and Manchin following the West Virginia Democrats’ rejection of the larger Build Back Better framework in December. Schumer and Manchin revised the proposal this week to ensure Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema — a centrist Democrat — would vote for advancing the bill.

The legislation would grant Medicare the authority to negotiate prescription drug prices and limit patients’ annual out-of-pocket costs to $2,000. A provision installing penalties for companies raising prices on drugs was removed following a ruling by the Senate parliamentarian. The measure additionally allocates funding for consumer energy rebates and tax credits, as well as investments related to clean energy development and greenhouse gas reduction efforts.

The bill also would extend subsidies for health insurance plans offered through the federal marketplace through 2025. The subsidies will expire at the end of the calendar year if Congress does not act; around 23,000 West Virginians would face higher premiums as a result.

The bill establishes a 15% minimum corporate tax on companies with profits of more than $1 billion, which senators believe will result in $313 billion in revenue over 10 years. Additional revenue would come from prescription drug negotiations and the enforcement of existing tax codes. Senators removed ending the carried interest loophole to gain Sinema’s vote. Manchin has further touted the plan’s $300 billion allocation for deficit reduction.

The bill additionally includes a fee on oil and natural gas companies regarding excessive methane emissions. It will take effect in 2024.

The Inflation Reduction Action has a provision establishing a permanent funding source for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. The excise tax on coal mined underground would increase to $1.10 a ton, and the tax on surface coal would go to 55 cents per ton.

“We have made promises to our miners that we’ll protect their health insurance, that we’ll protect their pensions, and that we’ll have a fully-funded black lung benefit program to help the many miners — about one in five in central Appalachia — whose day in and day out job inhaling coal dust and silica dust exposes them to a horrible pulmonary disease,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said on the Senate floor.

Congress failed to renew benefits for these miners before the end of last year. Senators have introduced separate legislation to support the fund for 10 years.

“This will provide permanent, sufficient funding to maintain the solvency of the fund,” Kaine added. “They can be assured that the program will be there for them should they get black lung disease.”

The United Mine Workers of America praised Manchin and Schumer for introducing the Inflation Reduction Act. President Cecil Roberts said the package will “give victims of this insidious disease, their families and their survivors some peace of mind” in accessing benefits.

Multiple state coal leaders — including West Virginia Coal Association President Chris Hamilton — have criticized the legislation, arguing in an open letter the measure would “quickly diminish our coal producing operations and all but obviate any need to innovate coal assets.” Manchin sent Hamilton a letter Thursday, telling Hamilton that he “may have been misled” about the bill, noting the measure’s investments in infrastructure improvements and tax credits for attracting new manufacturers to areas affected by coal’s downturn.

Some Republicans have cited Manchin in their arguments against the package, referencing Hamilton’s concerns and Manchin’s opposition to the Build Back Better plan, which would have dedicated $1.8 trillion toward multiple domestic programs. West Virginia’s senior senator had raised concerns last month about backing a bill with climate change spending and tax increases following the release of June inflation data.

“The senator from West Virginia has engaged in a gigantic, Olympic-worthy flip-flop,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn said.

“No amount of spin or fast-talking can conceal the damage this will inflict on the American people. Sen. Manchin likes to say, ‘If I can’t go back home and explain it, I can’t vote for it.’ But for the life of me, I don’t know how our Democratic colleagues are going to explain this one in November.”

There are also disagreements regarding the bill’s effects on inflation. The Penn Wharton Business Model estimates inflation would slightly increase before a decrease in 2024, but the change would be insignificant. More than 120 economists, however, sent a letter to congressional leaders this week contending the legislation would lower costs and establish the foundation for economic growth.

Democratic senators have vowed to oppose amendments to the bill to move the bill through the chamber. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has urged support for amendments related to further limits on prescription drug costs and other health care issues.

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