Wyden: 'We are moving forward' on social, climate changes
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden says he's still working toward congressional approval of some expanded social supports and incentives to reduce greenhouse gases, despite comments by another senator that appear to doom the prospects for President Joe Biden's Build Back Better agenda.
The Oregon Democrat says he is undeterred by the negative comments of West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, whose vote is needed in the evenly split Senate to pass the budget resolution that funds the agenda. Republicans unanimously oppose it.
Wyden, in an interview Wednesday, Dec. 22, referred to an encounter with a woman while shopping at Fred Meyer a couple of weeks ago. She told Wyden that congressional approval of $1 trillion for public works was good, "but tell those people in Washington that if I do not have child care, I can't get to the bridge."
Just last week, Wyden spoke up as the Internal Revenue Service made the last of six monthly payments of an expanded child tax credit for 2021. Parents will get the other half when they file 2021 tax returns in April, even if they owe no taxes. The expansion is only for 2021, but legislation that passed the House on Nov. 19 would extend it for 2022.
"This package creates more opportunity for everybody and helps people who greatly need it," Wyden said in the interview. "I want everybody to know we are moving forward. I'm looking at every opportunity. I am focused on keeping my eye on the bottom line, which is getting 50 votes. We're not giving up. We're going to stay at it. I am determined to get this done.
"We will be ready to pay for the judgments that Senate Democrats have made."
The credit was increased from $2,000 to $3,000 per year for each child ages 6 to 17, and $3,600 for children 5 and younger, in the American Rescue Plan Act, Biden's pandemic recovery plan.
Wyden sought to attach an extension to the legislation that increases the federal debt ceiling for another year. But his motion required unanimous consent, Republicans objected and the bill passed without it on Dec. 15.
'Failure not an option'
Wyden leads the Senate Finance Committee, which has authority over many of the items in the Build Back Better agenda, particularly tax-code changes and health care financing. He said the committee has laid out a menu of choices to pay for the priorities that Senate Democrats ultimately agree on.
"Failure is not an option here," Wyden said in a statement issued Dec. 19 after Manchin's comments.
"A package that addresses critical priorities over the long-term, like providing financial security for families, lowering the costs of health care and prescription drugs for seniors, and creating clean energy jobs by combating the climate crisis would go a long way toward addressing our challenges. The Finance Committee has put forward a revenue menu with more than enough options to permanently pay for these priorities."
Manchin has opposed an extension of the expanded child tax credit unless there are income tests.
"Families … have come to depend on these payments to cover the essentials like rent, groceries, heat and clothing for their children. Food insecurity among families dropped by about 25% since these payments began. Child poverty has been cut nearly in half," Wyden said in his statement. "This program is Social Security for our children, and Democrats must keep it going over the long term."
As chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Manchin has said he doubts there is a need for further incentives to reduce greenhouse gases because the nation is already headed in that direction. Wyden, who is the second-ranking Democrat — and chairman of that committee in 2013 — says there is little time left for the world to avert the worst effects of climate change.
Wyden said the tax-code changes his committee has put forward are incentives to reduce greenhouse gases. He said they do not single out fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas or coal — the latter still of great importance to West Virginia.
"That means that anybody can get tax savings by reducing carbon emissions, whatever the energy source," he said in the interview. "The more they reduce carbon, the more their tax savings. We still have some issues to deal with."
But Wyden said the incentives are structured in a way that Manchin should not object to.
"This package is supported by utility companies and environmental advocates alike and it's the only path forward that can secure 50 votes and achieve significant emissions reductions in the power sector," Wyden said in his statement.
"Senator Manchin has long said he would only support technology-neutral incentives. That's exactly what this package is structured around."
Health care changes
The Finance Committee also has authority over the financing of the largest federal health insurance programs — Medicare for people 65 and older, and for some with disabilities; Medicaid for low-income people, shared with the states, and the Children's Health Insurance Program for families earning too much to qualify for Medicaid.
Wyden said it's time to enable the federal government to negotiate prices with drugmakers under Medicare — the federal program of health insurance for people 65 and older, and for some with disabilities — and to continue expanded tax credits that enable people to obtain insurance coverage under the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
Republican majorities removed federal negotiating authority when Congress approved prescription drug coverage under Medicare in 2003, and Republicans unanimously opposed the Affordable Care Act, though they failed to enact an alternative when Donald Trump was president. The House passed several repeal attempts, but the Senate blocked them in 2017 when a few Republicans joined all Democrats to oppose them.
"Drug companies have been mugging Americans at the pharmacy window for too long, and there may not be another opportunity any time soon for Democrats to put a stop to it," Wyden said in his statement. "Fifty million seniors in Medicare have a lot of bargaining power, and it's long past due to put it to use."
During the interview, Wyden also praised recent comments by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that officials will look into increased fees by middlemen — particularly pharmacy benefit managers — that have been blamed for shutdowns of 37 Bi-Mart pharmacies in Oregon (and 56 total in the region). The higher fees also affect Medicare prescription-drug beneficiaries under Part D.
The enhanced tax credits included in the American Rescue Plan Act were the first significant changes in the Affordable Care Act since its passage in 2010 under President Barack Obama.
"It's vital that we extend those subsidies to make coverage affordable," Wyden said. "At a time when many American families are concerned about basic costs of living going up, Democrats cannot allow their health care costs to increase unnecessarily."
Editor's note: This expands a story first posted on Monday, Dec. 20, based on comments from an interview with Sen. Wyden on Wednesday, Dec. 22.
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