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Democrat senators kick off weekend debate over climate, tax and health bill

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Democrats could be on the brink of a major victory in Congress. Tonight, the Senate is taking up their bill that includes historic climate investments, measures to reduce drug prices and tax changes to lower the deficit. Democrats call it the Inflation Reduction Act. Republicans, though, argue the spending will make inflation worse. NPR's Deepa Shivaram is on Capitol Hill following this rare weekend session. Hi there.

DEEPA SHIVARAM, BYLINE: Hey.

ESTRIN: So it's been a busy week on Capitol Hill, and that's continuing through this weekend. Where do things stand now?

SHIVARAM: Yeah. So what's happened so far is that all 50 Democratic votes in the Senate have come on board with this legislation. That was in a somewhat precarious state until Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema signaled she would move forward with the bill on Thursday night. And now it's going through this wonky process in the Senate called reconciliation, where senators debate over the bill and can propose an unlimited number of amendments. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said there will be some long nights on the Hill this weekend.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: It will help just about every citizen in this country and make America a much better place. We are not leaving until the job is done.

SHIVARAM: The voting process is likely to go into Sunday before there's a final vote to pass this. And with a 50/50 split Senate, that final vote is going to require Vice President Harris coming in to break the tie for Democrats.

ESTRIN: Now, it looks like there is still some disagreement among Democrats, mostly from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who caucuses with them. So what's going on there?

SHIVARAM: Yeah. So Sanders said earlier this week that this bill doesn't do enough to tackle issues that working-class families are facing. And he said he would introduce amendments to bring up those concerns. Now, Sanders isn't withholding his support for the bill, but this is a much more scaled-down version of what progressives have called for and what President Biden originally called for with his "Build Back Better" agenda. Schumer and other Democrats have acknowledged that there are gaps in the bill and there are issues like child care and paid family leave that still need to be addressed. And Schumer pledged to keep fighting for these issues. But at this point, for Democrats, that could just mean passing this legislation, which checks off some of their priorities, and then convincing voters to expand their majority in the Senate to get more done.

ESTRIN: So there's not much Republicans can do to stop this bill. So what are we hearing from Republicans?

SHIVARAM: Yeah, that's right. This bill is all but guaranteed to pass. So right now, Republicans are just trying to brand it as a bad move from Democrats. They've tried to say that it will increase taxes, which it will, but only for Americans making more than $400,000 a year. And they said it will make inflation worse, while Democrats are insisting it'll make it better. But an analysis from the Congressional Budget Office does say that this bill has little impact on inflation in the next few years. Here's Republican Senator John Thune from South Dakota on the Senate floor earlier today.

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JOHN THUNE: The American people are tired of 40-year high inflation. They're tired of higher energy prices. They're tired of higher food prices.

SHIVARAM: Overall, the only thing Republican senators can really do at this point is drag out this process and just add amendment after amendment to make this last long into the night.

ESTRIN: Oh, boy. So after the Senate gets through all that, it has to go to the House, where it is likely to pass, and then President Biden would get to sign it into law. So what is the political impact for Democrats with an election about three months away?

SHIVARAM: Yeah. Simply put, this is a good week for Democrats.

ESTRIN: Yeah.

SHIVARAM: They have their entire caucus on board with legislation that takes on a big portion of the president's domestic agenda and fulfills many of the promises that he and other Democrats made in the 2020 election. And for Biden himself, it means he has a busy few weeks ahead. The president just tested negative today after recovering from COVID, so he soon might start traveling around the country and touting these victories.

And it's not just this bill that he gets to talk about, Daniel. The Senate has passed gun control legislation, a bill to benefit veterans who have been exposed to toxins and they voted to allow Finland and Sweden into NATO. And all of those votes were bipartisan. It's a pretty good look for Biden and for Democrats who are facing an uphill midterm election to say they succeeded in working across the aisle as well.

ESTRIN: NPR political reporter Deepa Shivaram, thank you.

SHIVARAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.