WASHINGTON – The first major prescription drug legislation in nearly 20 years. More than $50 billion to subsidize computer chip manufacturing and research. A bill that would enshrine protection for same-sex marriage.
After a turbulent stretch in which much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda seemed to be foundering, the president and his party may be on the cusp of significant wins in Congress that the White House hopes will provide at least a modest political boost.
Most politically resonant is a bill to let Medicare negotiate drug prices, a hugely popular idea that Democrats have been pursuing for more than 20 years. Even before that – possibly within days – Congress is likely to pass a bill providing $52 billion to the U.S. semiconductor industry, intended to bolster the U.S. economy and cut China’s influence. “We’re close, so let’s get it done,” Biden said of the bill on Monday. “So much depends on it.”
Democrats hope these measures earn a bigger political payoff than, say, Biden’s infrastructure law, which seemed to make little impression on voters.
“Democrats now seem to be hitting a stride where they’re about to rattle off three meaningful victories in a short amount of time, and for really the first time have an open field to politically gain from that,” said Kurt Bardella, a former Republican who now consults for Democrats. “On the health-care bill, this is stuff everybody generally understands. This is not a complex, nuanced policy situation where you may not feel the benefit for 5 to 10 years.”
The legislative wins come at a precarious time for the president and congressional Democrats, who have struggled to overcome poor public views of the economy due to persistent inflation as well as Biden’s low approval ratings. While several recent polls have shown congressional Democrats slightly improving their standing against Republicans, they remain at serious risk of losing their House and Senate majorities in November.
Last-minute glitches could still disrupt the upcoming bills, not least a coronavirus outbreak in the Senate that has temporarily sidelined such key figures as Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. And the semiconductor bill is a whittled-down version of a broader bill intended to boost U.S. competitiveness against China that some Republicans opposed.
The Medicare drug bill is especially notable, despite only covering some medications, since it marks the most significant drug pricing legislation since 2003. Polls show that health care, and the cost of prescription drugs in particular, consistently rank as a top voter concern. The bill would also provide a two-year extension of enhanced Affordable Care Act subsidies that would prevent health insurance premiums from rising significantly for many people.
The prescription drug legislation has enormous bipartisan support, with more than 90% of Americans saying in a March 2022 Kaiser Family Foundation poll that letting the government negotiate with drug companies to get a lower price on Medicare prescription drugs should be an “important priority” or a “top priority” for Congress.
The semiconductor bill would also provide tens of billions of dollars for the National Science Foundation and regional tech start-ups. Semiconductors are vital to an array of technological products, and China has been investing billions to make itself the leader in the field. While strategists said the bill would be harder for Democrats to message given its impact will be felt over years, not months, the legislation could eventually help address rising car prices that have in part been fueled by a chip shortage.
Biden, who is still in isolation after testing positive for the coronavirus last week, appeared during a virtual event on Monday with CEOs and labor leaders to urge Congress to pass the bill. “China is moving ahead of us in producing these sophisticated chips,” Biden said. “It’s no wonder China is watching this bill so carefully, and actively lobbying U.S. businesses against this bill.”
Meanwhile, a bill that Democrats offered to codify same-sex marriage recently attracted 47 Republican votes in the House, surprising leaders of both parties and igniting a push by Senate Democrats to pass the legislation in their chamber as well.
Biden advisers said the bills, if they all pass, will help the president draw a contrast between Democrats’ agenda and what they portray as an increasingly extreme GOP that is out of step with most Americans on issues ranging from abortion to same-sex marriage to gun control. But those advisers said they are not yet assuming the bills will become law, and caution there is work ahead.
“Middle class families need breathing room, and the deficit reduction [the health-care bill] accomplishes that and will also help fight inflation,” said Andrew Bates, White House deputy press secretary.
On the chips and same-sex marriage bills, he added, “Passing a landmark China competitiveness bill that will create manufacturing jobs across the country and standing up for the fundamental right of every American to marry who they love would be profound bipartisan wins for the county.”
Still, the various pieces of legislation could help boost Biden’s public standing, which has suffered as he has faced one crisis after another over the last year-and-a-half. Biden took office as the coronavirus pandemic was raging and killing thousands of people a day, and he saw much of his coronavirus agenda struck down by the Supreme Court.
Since then, he has dealt with record inflation, a baby formula shortage, numerous mass shootings, increasingly transmissible coronavirus variants, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a highly conservative Supreme Court that overturned the constitutional right to abortion, curbed the power of the Environmental Protection Agency and rolled back states’ ability to implement gun control measures.
The legislative victories that Biden has secured so far – a coronavirus relief package, a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that he signed in November and a modest gun control package that broke a 30-year logjam on the issue – have quickly been overtaken by events, or have been dismissed by many liberals as too small to meet the moment. The gun legislation, for instance, came amid a series of mass shootings, including a July 4 massacre at a parade in Highland Park, Ill., and as the Supreme Court struck down a New York law limiting residents’ ability to carry a weapon.
Both the bipartisan semiconductor bill and the Democratic prescription drug bill would represent major, politically significant achievements, but each represents a retreat from far bigger, more sweeping proposals. And Biden’s push for voting rights and police reform legislation collapsed, while a much-prized climate measure is on life support.
As a result, many Democratic lawmakers, activists and rank-and-file voters see the pending bills as a bitterly disappointing half-loaf rather than a triumph.
“This is a very big deal, and if Democrats had tried to just do this, it would be looked at as an enormous achievement,” said Phil Schiliro, who was the head of legislative affairs for President Barack Obama, of the health-care bill. “Because it was tied in with other things that aren’t going to be included, a lot of people look at what’s not in it, versus what this achieves and what it does for people.”
Many Democrats said privately that the White House was too quick to set soaring expectations when the party took over the presidency and Congress in 2021, given their historically narrow majorities. The prescription drug bill, for example, could be all that survives of a once-sweeping $2 trillion domestic policy package known as Build Back Better, which some Democrats compared to the New Deal and the Great Society in its size and scope.
Democrats scrambled last summer to set the fiscal parameters for Build Back Better, passing a budget that set the stage for $3.5 trillion in new spending that would include affordable child care and free pre-K, subsidize at-home care for the elderly and disabled, create the largest investment in clean energy and climate programs in American history, expand access to community college and deliver monthly tax credit payments to the vast majority of American families with school-age children.
But that agenda may have been better suited to a commanding majority than a Senate split 50-50 between the parties with Vice President Kamala Harris casting tiebreaking votes. Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., regularly threatened to defect; Sinema privately opposed many of the tax increases financing the package, and Manchin had a laundry list of fiscal and policy concerns, showing consistent skepticism of the climate provisions and insisting that the bill refrain from financial “gimmicks.”
Those warnings only increased in late 2021 as inflation rose. Shortly before Christmas last year, Manchin publicly announced he could no longer support Build Back Better as a massive policy program. Efforts to rebuild a deal faltered again this month when Manchin backed away from supporting any climate or tax provisions, leaving only the health-care pieces.
The semiconductor bill went through a similar, if less-dramatic, shrinking act. The U.S. Innovation and Competition Act had its roots in a bipartisan effort to wholly remake the federal government’s approach to supporting science and technology research.
With more than $100 billion in funding attached, as well as a passel of trade provisions, the bill passed the Senate in June 2021 with the support of 19 Republicans. But a companion House bill moved much more slowly as Democrats there sought to leverage their own priorities, such as a renewal of federal assistance to workers disadvantaged by foreign trade. An effort to mediate between the two chambers ended in an impasse last month, leading to the stripped down bill now set for Senate passage this week.
The White House hopes a legislative flurry will rewrite the storyline of Biden’s legislative record. The current push has taken on an added urgency because operatives in both parties expect Democrats to lose control of the House and possibly the Senate in November, meaning the window for Biden’s agenda is rapidly closing.
Party strategists say that if Biden and Democrats capitalize on the passage of the bills and reinforce the message to voters that they are passing policies that help lower their costs, Democrats could help shift the narrative that they have little to show for their unified control of government.
“These legislative victories would be very significant because they address voters’ top concerns, which is inflation and the cost of prescription drugs,” said Ben LaBolt, a Democratic strategist. “The best thing the president can do – the most effective thing he can do politically – is to make progress on what Americans are saying is a top priority for them.”