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Dems dive into make-or-break week for their party-line vision

Senate Democrats are headed for a dizzingly busy week: They’ll either be tying up the loose ends on a crowning legislative achievement more than a year in the making, or watching their health care, tax and climate bill hit more speed bumps live on C-SPAN.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has told his caucus to prepare to stay in through the weekend to finish up the package. And it’s possible that the bill, which is expected to bring in about $739 billion in revenues, might not be finalized until it hits the Senate floor later this week.

Lawmakers and aides on both sides of the aisle are now vetting the party-line package at breakneck speed — before it’s even won public commitment from Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — but there almost certainly isn’t enough time to finish scrubbing the entire bill before Democrats plan to start considering it on the floor. Senators are also still waiting on a score from the Congressional Budget Office, which they’ll need before moving forward.

As Sinema stays mum on whether she can back the tax provisions negotiated by Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) without her input, Democrats’ incredibly tight schedule for the bill could expose them to GOP challenges on the floor in real-time later this week. Should any of those Republican objections succeed, the strict rules that govern the package’s ability to pass without a single GOP backer would force Democrats to amend the bill at the last minute, delaying a final vote.

While there’s precedent for such chaos on the Senate floor, the eleventh-hour hurdles carry a real risk of damage to or destruction of the party-line deal that Democrats have spent more than a year chasing.

Covid absences could also contribute to any floor drama: Democrats haven’t had a single week with full attendance since June due to virus cases. And they likely can’t lose a single caucus member, given that no Republicans plan to support their bill. But on the other hand, any Republican absences due to a positive Covid test could make things easier for Democrats.

On Monday, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) disclosed a positive test but tweeted that he’ll return to the Senate for the votes on the Democratic package, “consistent with CDC guidelines.”

After months of working with Manchin to reach an agreement, Senate Democrats are well aware that Republicans plan to expend significant energy on forcing changes to the bill that the West Virginia centrist re-dubbed the “Inflation Reduction Act.” Before any final passage roll-call, senators must endure a “vote-a-rama,” the nickname for a required amendment barrage that typically lasts all night and will allow the GOP to force Democrats into a series of politically uncomfortable votes.

That process will be the Republicans’ last chance to try to woo Manchin or Sinema over to substantially change the bill. When asked if he was open to Republican amendments, Manchin replied: “We have a good balanced piece of legislation. It’s taken me eight months to get here. I’ve listened to everybody along the way so we have a good piece of legislation. But the process is what it is.”

As of Monday, Democratic and Republican staffers were preparing for the possibility of back-to-back private meetings with the Senate parliamentarian through Wednesday. Those huddles with the chamber’s nonpartisan rules referee will help determine whether each piece of the bill gels with the rules allowing Democrats to pass the package without the threat of a filibuster.

Vetting for Democrats’ drug pricing provisions alone has taken more than a week and was expected to drag into Tuesday. Senate Democratic aides are expecting the chamber to convene at noon each day this week to allow for those parliamentary meetings in this morning, according to a floor notice.

The parliamentarian has yet to opine on that prescription drug proposal, and now she must hear arguments on the package’s tax and climate pieces as well.

Some of the newer policies included in the Manchin-approved deal have yet to receive a lot of scrutiny for compliance with the budget rules — a procedural gantlet that would normally prove time-consuming.

“We have spent over a year and a half on this and I think we’ve written the textbook on how you do reconciliation,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said last week, referring to the formal name for the budget rules that allow the bill to sidestep a filibuster. The Wyden-chaired Finance Committee is charged with drafting a major portion of the bill.

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