The Washington Post

Biden now poised for big wins in Congress

Bills on semiconduc­tors, drug prices and more could deliver political lift

- BY YASMEEN ABUTALEB AND MIKE DEBONIS

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 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 five 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.

The upcoming bills could still be disrupted by last-minute glitches, not least a coronaviru­s outbreak in the Senate that has temporaril­y sidelined such key figures as Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.VA.) and Lisa Murkowski (RAlaska). 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, because it marks the most significan­t drugpricin­g legislatio­n since 2003. Polls show that health care, and the cost of prescripti­on drugs in particular, consistent­ly ranks 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 percent 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, deputy White House 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 guncontrol 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 shoot

ings, 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 rankand-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,” Phil Schiliro, who was the head of legislativ­e affairs for President Barack Obama, said of the healthcare 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 prekinderg­arten, subsidize at-home care for the elderly and the 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 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.”

 ?? Demetrius Freeman/the Washington Post ?? President Biden delivers remarks Tuesday during a virtual meeting with chief executives and labor leaders on legislatio­n that would provide $52 billion to the U.S. semiconduc­tor industry, intended to bolster the nation’s economy and cut China’s influence.
Demetrius Freeman/the Washington Post President Biden delivers remarks Tuesday during a virtual meeting with chief executives and labor leaders on legislatio­n that would provide $52 billion to the U.S. semiconduc­tor industry, intended to bolster the nation’s economy and cut China’s influence.

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