Sunday, August 07, 2022

Democrats in Array: How the Climate Bill Finally Passed

David Super

     As readers presumably know, the Senate today passed the Inflation Reduction Act, a budget reconciliation bill that has been in the works for a year and a half.  Although far less ambitious than the Build Back Better agreement Democrats reached then abandoned a year ago, it still includes transformational changes in energy policy to combat climate change.  It also reduces prescription drug prices for both Medicare beneficiaries and the federal government itself as well as extending enhanced premium tax credits that originated in the American Rescue Plan Act of early 2021.  It also reduces the deficit by raising taxes on the affluent and repairing some of the damage Republican appropriators have done over the past decade to the Internal Revenue Service’s capacity to curb tax evasion. 

     Superficially, everything went largely according to script:  all Democratic senators supported the bill, all Republicans opposed it, and Vice President Harris broke the tie in favor of passage.  The House will reconvene later this week to pass the bill and send it on to the President. 

     Beneath the surface, however, this legislation is not just a substantive tour de force but a strategic one as well.  It also suggests that, after decades of headlines about their supposed “disarray”, Democrats are developing the pragmatism and strategic judgment necessary for them to do much more going forward if they can manage to win elections.  This post is a set of observations on how this happened.

     First, notwithstanding the determined talk about bipartisanship from President Biden and his two immediate Democratic predecessors, the Democrats recognized early on that they were completely alone.  Under no circumstances would any Republicans help out in any way; historically, senators from the minority party will sometimes help craft parts of legislation, or defeat nefarious amendments, even if they do not plan to vote for final passage.  Here, every single Republican move, from threatening to hold hostage other legislation to crafting amendments designed solely to splinter the Democratic caucus, sought to undermine the legislation.  Supposed Senate Republican moderates played along all the way.  (Sen. Collins voted against a few extreme amendments when the Democrats had demonstrated they had the fifty votes to defeat it, but she never committed herself in advance – suggesting that she might have changed her vote had it been decisive.) 

     Second, Democrats showed remarkable unity.  Adoption of any Republican poison-pill amendments might have doomed final passage in the Senate and almost certainly would have done so in the House. 

     Democrats had two means available to pass a “clean” bill:  defeat every amendment as it came up or support a comprehensive superseding amendment at the end from Senate Majority Leader Schumer to strip out all amendments adopted along the way.  Many of us assumed the senators would want to vote for many Republican amendments and then adopt the “king-of-the-hill” strategy at the end.  That, however, would have put a majority of the Senate on record favoring this or that problematic policy and all but inviting Republicans to force them to vote on those same policies during consideration of future must-pass legislation. 

     To their credit, Democratic senators recognized this danger, held hands and voted down everything.  Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) gave moderate and endangered Democrats cover by offering up several amendments to make the legislation more liberal.  Consistent with the Democrats’ agreement to oppose all amendments, the Sanders Amendments were voted down 99-1 or thereabouts.  This allowed all senators to say that they were protecting the underlying bill by opposing amendments they liked as well as those they did not – a claim made more credible when they rejected appealing liberalizing amendments. 

     Democratic senators’ unity, and clear focus on the need to enact the climate bill, was so powerful that Senator Schumer elected not to use several lifelines he had available.  In particular, many Republican amendments violated the Senate’s rules; by raising a point of order against them, Senator Schumer could force the Republicans to seek the sixty votes needed to waive the Congressional Budget Act.  That framing made “no” votes easier to explain, and the higher threshold allowed up to nine Democrats to cast politically convenient votes with the Republicans while still allowing the amendment to fail.  Yet that device, too, would put Democrats on record supporting policies they disfavored, opening the door to on-going Republican attempts to force votes on future legislation.  On several Republican amendments containing overt, even outlandish violations of Senate Rules, the Democratic leadership elected not to raise the point of order, fighting the amendment with a fifty-vote threshold for success.  To the amazement of those of us beseeching the leadership to invoke available points of order, every such amendment failed.  Only on two Republican amendments did the Democrats give themselves a margin of error by raising a point of order. 

     Most observers became convinced that the legislation was going to pass after Democrats voted down the seventh offered amendment, which would have reinstated President Trump’s “remain-in-Mexico” policy.  That policy polls extremely well but is difficult to reconcile with our international obligations to those fleeing oppression.  Democrats have been leery about opposing it in the past, but this time they voted it down without dissention (and also without help from any purportedly moderate Republicans).  This amendment blatantly violated section 313(b)(1)(D) of the Congressional Budget Act, but Democrats declined to raise a point of order that could have allowed nine of them to vote for it. 

     On the other hand, half of the Democratic amendments came to the floor needing sixty votes to pass.  At least one of these did irredeemably violate Senate rules, but some others probably could have been reframed to require only fifty votes to pass.  The leadership recognized, however, that adoption of these amendments would blow up their carefully-honed deal and that no Democrat wanted to be recorded as the one to scuttle important Democratic priorities.  By bringing their amendments to the floor in a form requiring sixty votes, Democrats could vote for the amendments and still know that nothing would rupture their agreement. 

     Third, Democrats showed impressive preparation.  The bill threatened to unravel near the end of the “vote-a-rama” on amendments when Sen. Kyrsten Sinema unexpectedly decided to support an amendment from Senate Republican Whip John Thune.  The Thune Amendment would narrow the bill’s corporate minimum tax and pay for it by extending caps on deductions for State and Local Taxes (SALT).  SALT caps are intensely unpopular with Democrats from high-tax states, and extending them could have jeopardized the bill in both chambers.  Once Sen. Sinema broke ranks, six other purple-state Democrats followed suit. 

     The leadership was ready, however, and as soon as the Thune Amendment passed Sen. Mark Warner offered an amendment to strip out Sen. Thune’s SALT caps and replace them with an alternative revenue source.  All Democrats supported the change, and the underlying bill was again free of poison pills.  Had the leadership not prepared amendments with alternative revenue sources and had them costed out in advance, it would have had few good options for salvaging the bill. 

     After Sen. Thune’s SALT gambit failed, Senate Minority Leader McConnell terminated the Republicans’ fourteen-hour amendment campaign and allowed a final vote.  All told, Republicans offered twenty-seven amendments and Democrats brought ten to a vote; all except Sen. Thune’s and Sen. Warner’s failed. 


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