If the US House soon passes the Senate’s landmark climate change and health care bill, it will help validate the Democrats’ monopoly on political power in Washington and hand Joe Biden a notable presidential legacy ahead of November’s midterm elections.
The measure finally squeezed through the Senate after an exhausting and dramatic round-the-clock marathon that stretched into Sunday afternoon – a major breakthrough following months of Democratic infighting that gouged deep divides in the party.
The Inflation Reduction Act may not live up to its name and cut the cost of living. It dashed some big dreams of progressives who wanted it to do more. And its final passage may come too late to save Democrats in the midterms. But it’s still an enormous win for the party that seemed impossible just weeks ago.
In a goal Democrats have been chasing for decades, the legislation will for the first time give Medicare the power to negotiate the cost of a limited basket of prescription drugs, thereby bringing down costs. In extending Affordable Care Act subsidies, it could save health care coverage for countless people. And in spending nearly $370 billion to reduce emissions that contribute to climate change, it goes most of the way to reaching Biden’s ambitious plans to create a clean energy economy. The bill could also help revive US global leadership in the quest to save the planet by prodding other nations to follow suit.
The victory is all the more remarkable since it was achieved against vehement GOP opposition in the 50-50 Senate, where Democrats had no room for error. Democrats spent months negotiating with themselves, as moderate senators like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema extracted concessions that progressives had little choice but to accept to save the bill. Coal state senator Manchin revived the measure after reversing his opposition late last month and agreeing to a clean energy push in return for concessions on fossil fuels.
At times, Biden was in the weeds trying to get this major chunk of his domestic agenda enacted. The credibility of his presidency depended on overcoming the obstacles to significant economy-changing legislation. But in recent weeks, saddled by plunging approval ratings, he let the Senate work its will and accepted a final result that fell far short of his original aspirations for a Franklin Roosevelt-style transformation. The Senate finally passed it, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie, shortly after Biden emerged from the White House from his second Covid isolation.
All major new laws are judged in multiple ways – on their impact on the lives of Americans, on how they shift the political environment and how they appear in retrospect, many years down the road, in history’s ledger. So even if Democrats’ achievement may not be rewarded at the ballot box anytime soon, it might not go without notice in the long term.
If, as expected, this bill is passed along party lines in the House this week, its real world impact will be measured in whether it lives up to Democratic claims that it will slash carbon emissions at a time when the deadly effects of climate change – seen in extreme floods, droughts and wildfires – are becoming ever more obvious.
How voters and history will judge the big Democratic win
The party and the White House also say the bill could have a massive human impact by helping elderly Americans struggling to pay for certain vital medicines and create real quality of life improvements for millions.
And in extending Obamacare subsidies, this measure would lock in and prolong one of the greatest achievements of Democratic rule in the 21st century.
Then there are electoral reverberations from the passage of a bill that, like most legislation, will take months and years to be fully implemented and so could lack immediate, transformative political after-effects.
It’s unclear whether this push, which will enshrine a major piece of Biden’s agenda, will rescue the President’s fast diminishing political fortunes. His approval rating, which has dipped below 40%, threatens to drag down Democrats and smash their hold on power in Washington in November. Democrats have faced a savage political storm for much of this year, as a nation exhausted by the pandemic has faced soaring gas and grocery prices.
This legislative achievement could at least gives them a chance to reengage with their voters, some of whom have given the President poor marks, according to recent polls. Democrats can argue they have made the most sweeping investments in combating climate change in history, an important consideration for generations – and especially young voters, who will live with a warming planet.
“This is an absolute historic investment in climate change,” White House Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy told CNN’s Pamela Brown Sunday, touting the measure’s impact on fostering clean energy, growing jobs and saving consumers money.
To get older voters to the polls, meanwhile, Democrats can stress drug price cuts now that Medicare will have some negotiating power.
Taken together with the Supreme Court’s overturning of the constitutional right to abortion and a recent easing of gasoline prices, Democrats have reason to hope their voters will turn out this fall. Driving base voters to the polls may not save the House, which many election analysts believe is heading to the GOP. But it could play into the critical handful of races that will decide the control of the Senate, where Republicans need to gain just one seat to win the majority.
More broadly, the poor political environment for Democrats has cleared somewhat, especially as Republicans nominate some candidates who could complicate the GOP’s ability to capitalize on what had been shaping up as a favorable year for them.
Even Biden’s fortunes appear to have turned in recent weeks after being beleaguered for much of the last year as crisis after crisis, at home and abroad, crashed into his White House and thwarted ambitious plans. A bumper jobs report on Friday helped tame fears the economy is about to head into recession. And the President presided over the killing of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan, going some way to repair his reputation as a shrewd commander-in-chief, which was tarnished by the chaotic end to the US war in the country.
Still, history suggests that the party of first-term presidents – especially those will an approval rating under 50% – tend to get a hammering in the midterm elections.
And Republicans sense an opening. They are branding the Senate measure as yet another massive spending bill that will worsen already soaring inflation. Economists are divided on Democratic claims that the bill will reduce the cost of living. But if everyday costs continue to rise, it may not matter politically what the truth is – a damaging impression could take hold that Biden is once again pouring oil on the flames of inflation with a massive spending bill.
Senate Minority Mitch McConnell tried to immediately hammer home his party’s message in the midterms, accusing Democrats of introducing “giant job-killing tax hikes” and a “war on American fossil fuel” at a time of high energy prices.
“(Democrats’) response to the runaway inflation they’ve created is a bill that experts say will not meaningfully cut inflation at all,” said the Kentucky Republican. “The American people are clear about their priorities. Environmental regulation is a 3% issue. Americans want solutions for inflation, crime, and the border.”
A powerful legacy even if it doesn’t translate in November
Biden was quick to jump on Sunday’s Senate vote as a sign of momentum for his presidency.
“Senate Democrats sided with American families over special interests, voting to lower the cost of prescription drugs, health insurance, and everyday energy costs and reduce the deficit, while making the wealthiest corporations finally pay their fair share,” the President said, hinting at how Democrats, who have struggled to effectively market his wins as President, will sell the bill to voters.
The passage of his health care and climate change bill in the Senate sets Biden up for a domestic legacy that stands comparison with any recent Democratic President. This adds to Biden’s previous successes in Congress, including a bipartisan infrastructure deal that evaded his two most recent predecessors, the first major federal gun safety legislation passed in decades and a pandemic rescue plan early in his presidency that the White House said lifted millions of kids out of poverty.
These achievements may not move the political needle for Biden, especially if voters have already made up their mind on his presidency, with polls showing most Americans believe the nation is heading in the wrong direction. The President’s recent successes also appear unlikely to quell a drumbeat of debate about whether he should run for reelection in 2024, when he’ll be in his 80s. The age question is not going away for Biden.
But even if the President doesn’t get a substantial short-term boost for his winning streak and see his poll numbers significantly rise, the last few weeks have been vital in shifting narratives about his presidency. Most administrations are ultimately remembered for a handful of achievements that create a kind of narrative shorthand to encapsulate a President’s place in history.
If the global climate push succeeds in mitigating the most disastrous impacts on the planet in decades to come, Biden – who did more than anyone else who held the presidency to respond to the threat – will come to be remembered for taking action. The same will be the case if a new era of electric vehicles is enshrined by the energy legislation and the US begins to turn its back on the internal combustion engine – a cornerstone of US freedoms of movement and prosperity for decades.
Biden is also likely to get credit from future historians for his role in building on the Obama administration’s advances on expanding access to health care. The Inflation Reduction Act does fall far short of early hopes of transforming home health care, increasing education funding and offering dental and vision plans under Medicare. These are a few reasons why Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent, was so critical of a bill he later voted for despite his reservations.
“This reconciliation bill goes nowhere near far enough in addressing the problems facing struggling working families. But it is a step forward and I was happy to support it,” Sanders said in a statement.
But political success in the United States, on issues from civil rights to social care, has almost always come in increments, with one presidency building on the gains of another. Given the vicious and widening political divides of modern American, that has been more the case in recent years.
So Democrats, who may lose their majorities in November, may at least be able to console themselves by knowing that they did not squander their lease on power as had seemed likely for many months.