PORTLAND, Ore. — Congress passed a sweeping, $750 billion health care, tax and climate bill known as the Inflation Reduction Act this week, but the Senate vote on Sunday came only after an exhausting 16-hour marathon session.
Under the bizarre rules of a Senate process known as "vote-a-rama," Senators can offer amendments and each one requires a vote. Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley called it a grueling and somewhat mysterious exercise.
"You have 80-year-old Senators going clear though the night like they were in college," he said. "And not just through the night, but through the next day, too."
Senate Democrats stayed unified through the process, with all 50 members of their caucus voting in lockstep and Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaker vote in the evenly divided Senate.
The House took the bill up Friday and passed it in a 220-207 vote, sending it on to President Joe Biden's desk to be signed into law. Senator Merkley hailed the passage of the bill "a very big deal."
"It is really focused on energy costs and drug costs, and on tax equity to finally have some of the biggest corporations actually pay their fair share," he said.
Senator Merkley was a guest on this week's episode of Straight Talk to discuss how the bill will impact Americans and lower inflation.
"It's going to save lives"
One of the most significant parts of the bill is a change that will allow Medicare to negotiate the prices of certain expensive drugs.
It only includes 10 drugs beginning in 2026, but Merkley called it a good start. Every other developed country already negotiates prices with pharmaceutical companies, he said, and Americans pay multiple times more for drugs than people in those countries.
"The bill doesn't go far enough, fast enough in my opinion," he said. "I'd like to see us negotiate every drug in America tomorrow. We should get the best prices in America, not the worse. But, for the first time, it starts that process. And drug prices are a big deal to people."
The bill also caps out-of-pocket expenses at $2000 for people on Medicare. Some older Americans currently have to pay ten times that amount for medications, Merkley said, and often stop taking the drugs they need because they can't afford them.
"It's going to save lives, improve the quality of life for millions of Americans, and it's going to put an inflation cap on those drugs in the future so we don't see the price gouges we've seen in the past," he said.
Responding to drug companies' claims that passage of the bill was a mistake and will reverse progress on research into new treatments and medicines, Senator Merkley called the argument, "bogus."
"It's a false story by a powerful industry...They use dark money campaigns, they use media campaigns to sustain this incredibly privileged position to rip us all off. This has to end. And this is the very beginning of it ending," he said.
The nearly $400 billion climate portion of the package is the largest climate investment in US history. It's expected to have a crucial impact on reducing greenhouse gasses, with the goal of cutting U.S. emissions 40% by 2030.
It includes a host of tax incentives to bring down energy costs with the use of more renewable energy and aims to get Americans to switch to electricity to power their homes and cars. It also extends an electric vehicle tax credit.
"It's not as strong as we wanted it to be, again, I'd like to take it further," Merkley said. "But, one thing I really do like is it provides a tax credit, following Oregon's example, for used electric vehicles...This will really help spread the transition to electric vehicles throughout our community."
The Inflation Reduction Act alone won't be enough to get to Biden's goal of cutting emissions in half by 2030, Merkley said. He has urged Biden to declare a "Climate Emergency" under the National Emergency Act, which would give the President sweeping powers to take action on things like banning US crude oil exports, ending offshore drilling, and speeding up the manufacture of electric vehicles.
Meeting the target will also require tackling the challenge of methane and carbon dioxide in the air, he said, and America has to set an example in that effort.
"We can't lead the world without the power of our example," he said. "So, the power of our example is we use not only this law, we also we use all the powers of the executive branch."
$300 billion deficit reduction
The bill also closes some tax loopholes and adds a 1% excise tax on certain corporate stock buybacks. Merkley said the bill will cut the deficit by $300 billion.
"So we raised more money than we are spending by a significant factor... We are doing good programs that take on real issues and it cuts the deficit," he said.
Merkley also discussed funding for community projects across Oregon, Democrats' prospects in the upcoming midterm election and his push for filibuster reform in the Senate.
Straight Talk airs Friday at 7pm, Saturday and Sunday at 6:30pm.
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