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Dems near pivotal vote with climate agenda intact, prescription-drug plan dinged

Democrats have survived the vetting of the Medicare portions of their prescription drug reform plan, but lost ground on a separate pillar that penalizes drug companies for raising prices on individuals with private health insurance, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Saturday.

The announcement is a blow to the party’s signature domestic policy bill, which is headed for a key procedural vote later Saturday. Schumer, however, underscored the upside: The Senate’s nonpartisan rules referee, who decides which provisions are eligible for sidestepping a GOP filibuster under the chamber’s strict rules, signed off on Medicare-related drug price negotiation.

“This is a major victory for the American people,” Schumer said in a statement. “While there was one unfortunate ruling … 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.”

While the loss of their proposed prescription drug price benefits for the millions of Americans who get health insurance through private-sector employers stings hard, Democrats also got some good news overnight on their climate change plan — the Senate’s rules arbiter signed off on that the bill’s energy provisions, including electric vehicle tax credits and a bonus tax credit to encourage clean energy developers to pay the prevailing wage.

“I’m especially pleased that our prevailing wage provisions were approved. These provisions guarantee wage rates for clean energy projects. Clean energy jobs will be good-paying jobs,” Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), whose panel is spearheading much of the effort, said in a statement.

The chamber is set to for a pivotal vote to move forward on the bill later Saturday afternoon.

Aides on both sides of the aisle had sparred over Democrats’ drug pricing plans for weeks. Republicans argued that the savings yielded by the mandate involving the private insurance market, in particular, could be considered a budget side effect of the policy rather than its main purpose, which would break Senate budget rules.

Some budget experts had surmised that certain conditions placed on the electric vehicle tax credits, including restrictions on where car battery materials must be sourced, ran afoul of the budget rules guiding the process that Democrats are using to pass their bill with a simple majority and evade a filibuster.

Under the current proposal, a car is only eligible for full credit if the batteries were made with materials from the U.S. or countries that have trade agreements with the U.S. That’s a requirement that some experts argue will make it very difficult to obtain the tax credit.

But those provisions can apparently remain in the package — a decision likely to please Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who wanted the restrictions in order to curb the electric vehicle industry’s reliance on China.

In addition to the electric vehicle provisions, Democrats also preserved another element of the bill’s climate section: a proposed fee on oil and gas companies that exceed a certain level of methane emissions.

Importantly, the fate of one major health care provision that Democrats want in the bill remains uncertain: reducing the price of insulin, a top priority for 2022 incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.). Republicans are trying to block the insulin proposal by arguing its policy implications for the private market outweigh its budgetary impact.

Saturday’s procedural hurdle, once cleared by Democrats, will trigger up to 20 hours of debate evenly divided by both Democrats and Republicans. But both sides of the aisle aren’t expected to use their full time.

Rather, senators are likely eager to get started with a marathon amendment process known as “vote-a-rama,” in which the GOP will mount a series of politically tricky votes for Democrats in the hopes of amending the party-line package that’s been more than a year in the making. The Senate must endure the amendment marathon before Democrats can finally approve the overall bill.

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