Biden signs climate, drug price bill into law, another win for him amid crisis for U.S. democracy

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WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 16: President Joe Biden, center, hands the pen used to sign H.R. 5376, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 into law, to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) in the State Dining Room of the White House on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022 in Washington, DC. The 737 billion dollar bill focuses on climate change, lowering health care costs and creating clean energy jobs. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
President Biden hands a pen he used to sign the Democrats' landmark climate change and healthcare act to Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

At a moment when American democracy looks increasingly vulnerable, President Biden and Democrats pointed to their third landmark bill as evidence that American government is working once again.

A nearly $400-billion investment in clean energy subsidies will mark the United States' most serious effort yet to combat climate change. A cap on prescription drug costs will ensure that seniors on Medicare pay no more than $2,000 a year for their medications. And an extension on COVID-19 pandemic subsidies will lower healthcare costs for 13 million Americans.

None of these long-sought changes to U.S. law appeared likely a month ago, when last-ditch negotiations between Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and centrist Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), the party's crucial 50th vote in the evenly divided Senate, appeared to break down.

But on Tuesday, President Biden sat at a small desk in the White House State Dining Room, scrawled his name in ink on the $700-billion Inflation Reduction Act, and made all of those changes a reality.

Biden characterized the package as evidence of Democrats' commitment to achieving their policy goals.

“We are in a season of substance,” he said before signing the bill into law.

"Today offers further proof," he continued, "that the soul of America is vibrant, the future of America is bright, and the promise of America is real and just beginning.”

The legislation, the president added, "is about showing the American people that democracy still works in America — notwithstanding all ... the talk of its demise."

Democrats, despite their slim majority in the House and a tie with Republicans in the Senate, have now managed — at seemingly the last possible second — to deliver on several of their 2020 campaign promises.

The deal is far less than what Biden had hoped for when he threw his weight behind a $3.5-trillion proposal that included paid family leave, a child tax credit extension and other benefits for working families a year ago. But the ultimate compromise amounts to far more than most Democrats expected earlier this summer. After months of frustrations with Manchin, many Democrats are thrilled that, in the end, his bill goes as far as it does.

The final compromise sailed through the Senate and then the House, even without a single Republican vote. The House approved the measure, 220 to 207, on Friday, just days after it squeaked through the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris voting with the Democratic caucus to break a 50-50 tie.

Democratic lawmakers have given themselves another accomplishment to showcase for voters this fall — one that casts the Biden presidency, bogged down by a difficult 12-month stretch, in a new light.

Last week, Biden signed a bipartisan bill to boost domestic microchip production, another providing healthcare for veterans exposed to toxic materials on the battlefield, and formal accession protocols for Finland and Sweden to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a move the Senate approved on a 95-1 vote.

With Tuesday's signing of the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden's aides argue that his first-term legislative accomplishments surpass those of his recent predecessors.

The Inflation Reduction Act and 2021's $1.9-trillion American Rescue Plan passed on party-line votes — but the microchip bill, the veterans health bill and last year's $1-trillion infrastructure overhaul all won some Republican support, fulfilling a Biden vow to bring bipartisan legislating back to Washington.

“For anyone who thought Washington was broken and couldn't do big things, Democrats have shown real change is possible,” Schumer said at Tuesday's signing ceremony.

But despite Republicans' and Democrats' renewed willingness at times to work together in Congress, American democracy remains under threat.

Biden's predecessor, under investigation on multiple fronts, continues to test the country's faith in its own Constitution, undermining the rule of law and stoking America's already sectarian politico-cultural divisions.

Former President Trump's enduring grip on an angry and increasingly anti-democratic Republican electorate was confirmed again Tuesday evening, when Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who has used her place on the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection to argue against Trump ever holding office again, lost to a primary challenger he had backed. And nearly nonstop cable news coverage of Trump's legal exposure since the FBI's search and recovery last week of boxes of highly classified material from his Palm Beach, Fla., estate has already overwhelmed coverage of Democratic wins on Capitol Hill.

"Republicans are talking about elections being stolen and how they won't certify [the vote] in 2024, and Democrats are talking about how they're passing historic legislation. They are just in totally different universes," said Sarah Longwell, a GOP consultant, media personality and founder of the group Republican Voters Against Trump.

The parties' disagreement over the merits of the Inflation Reduction Act will be a critical point of contrast as they campaign this fall. The bill's $375 billion in spending, tax credits and loans includes measures aimed at boosting the use of solar panels, improving home energy efficiency, adding emission-reducing equipment to coal and gas power plants, and implementing air pollution controls for farms, ports and low-income communities. Democrats hope that together, those efforts will make a significant dent in carbon emissions over the next decade.

"This bill is the biggest step forward on climate ever,” Biden said Tuesday.

In the short term, the bill delivers what environmental activists and many younger voters were clamoring for.

"This bill meets the moment," said Pete Maysmith, senior vice president of campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters. "By getting the biggest investment to combat the climate crisis ever across the finish line, the Democrats married needed policy with smart politics."

Longwell's recent focus groups with Democratic voters, she noted, have been marked by a sudden enthusiasm that had been missing for months. The spurt of legislative achievements, she said, "helps beat back on that narrative that Democrats are inept and impotent."

"The reason it feels like it's the best of times and the worst of times is because of the [Supreme Court's] abortion decision and all of these Trump acolytes winning Republican primaries," she continued. "Democrats see some wins but also the threat that's shaping up, and that's refocusing the conversation so it's not entirely about inflation and the economy."

While Democrats plan to make the case that they have done what they promised to do, Republicans will say that the additional spending is reckless during a period of runaway inflation, and that the tax hikes on corporations, which Democrats say will offset the new spending and reduce the deficit, will instead stifle economic growth.

The GOP has also criticized the package's $80 billion in new funding to the Internal Revenue Service, which will allow for the hiring of thousands of new employees to ease agency backlogs and conduct more audits of taxpayers. Although Democrats insist the additional audits will focus on the wealthy, Republicans have sought to convince middle-class voters that they too will face increased scrutiny.

"The partisan bill President Biden signed into law today means higher taxes, higher energy bills, and aggressive IRS audits," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tweeted Tuesday afternoon.

Manchin, who spoke with reporters at the White House after the ceremony, insisted the new law would live up to its name and reduce inflation over time.

"Tell me another time that we paid down the debt, provided more energy, lowered the prices at the pump, lowered the prices at home," he said. "In any other time, this would have been a bipartisan bill."

Bullish that the package on the whole is a political winner, the White House is set to launch an August campaign blitz, with Cabinet members traveling to 23 states to explain the benefits of the measure.

"Our internal polling shows that messages touting the cost-lowering features of the Inflation Reduction Act — lowering healthcare costs, prescription drug costs, and utility bills — are among the highest testing messages ever," White House senior advisor Anita Dunn and Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon wrote in a memo last week. "We will make clear that the President and Congressional Democrats beat the special interests and delivered what was best for the American people."

At the signing ceremony, Biden offered a preview of his party's campaign-season rhetoric, saying that "Democrats sided with the American people, and every single Republican in the Congress sided with the special interests."

Democrats will hold a larger celebration for the legislation on Sept. 6, when lawmakers are back in Washington.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.