Texas Dems uniformly vote for Biden’s cornerstone climate and health care legislation

From left: U.S. Reps. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin; Lizzie Fletcher, D-Houston; and Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo. (The Texas Tribune, The Texas Tribune)

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WASHINGTON — Texas’ congressional Democrats presented a united front Friday in voting for their party’s signature climate, health care and tax legislation, helping to secure one of the biggest political wins for the party just ahead of what is widely expected to be an uphill midterm election.

The state’s Democrats had a major hand in crafting the bill, at times pushing back on party leadership as it went through numerous contortions over the past year. The final legislation could offer major cash for the state’s energy sector and provide expansive benefits for the state’s thousands of uninsured and elderly residents. In the end, all Texas Democrats voted for the bill while all Republicans in Congress voted to kill it.

The bill already passed the Senate, and heads next to President Joe Biden, who will sign it into law.

The bill, dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act, is the country’s largest ever investment in clean energy, allocating billions of dollars in tax credits to encourage home installation of energy efficiency technology, purchases of electric vehicles and investments in renewable generation. The bill also provides tax incentives to make sure components of those technologies are manufactured in the U.S.

Combating climate change is one of Biden’s central policy goals, setting an objective of reducing half of the country’s emissions by 2030, achieving a carbon-neutral power sector by 2035 and reaching net-zero carbon emissions economy-wide by 2050. Early modeling shows the bill reducing emissions by 40% by the end of the decade, meaning further congressional or regulatory action will be necessary to come in line with the goals scientists say are necessary to stave off climate catastrophe.

Texas is particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events such as heat waves and hurricanes exacerbated by climate change. The state is also a leader in renewable power, generating more wind power than any other state.

Texas’ oil and gas industry would also be directly impacted by a methane reduction program aimed at prodding companies to get their runaway emissions under control. The bill would eventually charge companies a fee on the emissions, though it offers financial assistance aimed at protecting smaller oil and gas operations.

Texas’ Permian Basin is responsible for a large share of the nation’s methane emissions, which are more than 25 times more potent at warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. U.S. Rep. August Pfluger, a Republican who represents large swaths of the Permian, introduced an amendment to cut the methane fee. It went nowhere.

The bill also allows Medicare to negotiate certain prescription drug costs — though those benefits would not be immediate — and expands the Affordable Care Act, which about 1.8 million Texans use. It also sets a $2,000 yearly out of pocket cap for Medicaid beneficiaries, which would impact nearly 106,000 Texans, said Tina Tran, Texas state director at AARP.

“This has been our federal priority for years now and we have lined up as much as we can,” Tran said. “Now, we will continue after the passage of the bill to continue working on prescription drug prices.”

The bill would also implement a 15% minimum tax on the domestic profits of corporations and expand IRS enforcement in a bid to reduce the deficit.

The final days before the House vote were already filled with Democrats celebrating the bill as a massive victory. As members returned home for recess, they touted the package to constituents and vowed to tackle more agenda items if voters let them keep majorities in the House and Senate next year.

“This bill makes a tremendous difference at the kitchen table of America’s families,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., wrote in a letter to members Wednesday. “Those of us who have been fighting from the beginning for more family provisions in Reconciliation know we must never give up that fight — and will continue it in future legislation.”

But behind the scenes, the effort to persuade members wasn’t over. A handful of Texas Democrats were keeping their positions on the bill under wraps, including two moderates from South Texas, U.S. reps. Henry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez. Both represent regions heavily populated by oil and gas industry workers, and both voiced concerns over the provisions that would place a fine on the sector’s methane fees.

Cuellar ultimately released a statement supporting the bill Thursday morning, writing: “No bill is perfect. However, compromise, common sense, and rising above partisan politics to make meaningful and balanced change is our duty as legislators.”

Gonzalez kept his vote secret until the very last moment. He ended up voting for the bill, saying it was “far from perfect” but “reduces energy and health care costs of South Texas families.”

“Many have raised concerns with provisions pertaining to domestic energy production. Rest assured that I worked and am still working to assure this bill does not prevent the United States from leading the world in responsible oil and gas production,” he wrote in a statement.

And Austin progressive Rep. Lloyd Doggett was expressing dissatisfaction with how far the bill goes on progressive priorities as recently as this week, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.

Doggett told colleagues just before recess that he would vote against the bill if it didn’t include provisions to close the medicaid coverage gap, U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, told the Tribune. It’s an issue that directly impacts Texas, which has repeatedly opted not to expand its medicaid program.

Doggett led a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer last month, saying, “We cannot afford to go home without doing something to help out those who have been left out and left behind for so long.” All Texas Democrats in the House signed onto the letter.

The bill ended up a far cry from the $3.5 trillion behemoth Democrats initially proposed last year. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., culled much of the bill citing inflation concerns and objecting to provisions that benefited zero-emission energy over fossil fuels. Energy-focused Democrats in the Texas delegation also worked to make the bill more favorable to their oil and gas interests.

Some of the biggest items to get cut were a child tax credit, a civilian climate corps, a universal cap on the price of insulin and assistance for state-run pre-kindergarten. And as much as centrists protested the bill for its more liberal spending items, progressives also threatened to tank a massive bipartisan infrastructure bill last year in order to force the caucus to move ahead with aggressive social spending legislation.

But after over a year of starts and stops, high expectations and shattered hopes, a heavy sense of negotiation fatigue and a deep desire to get a major legislative win to Biden’s desk before Election Day got the entire caucus on board, even if members said it didn’t go far enough or included provisions they didn’t like.

“No bill is perfect. There are things I wish were still included in this final package,” House Rules Chair Bill McGovern, D-Mass., said during a Wednesday hearing setting up Friday’s vote. “But you know what? We can’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. And this is a big, big deal. The Inflation Reduction Act makes transformational investments. It is the strongest possible version of this bill that can make it to the president’s desk.”

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins sent a letter to members Tuesday urging them to vote for the bill, and League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski sent a similar letter Wednesday. Both groups have had an active hand with members of Congress in crafting and advancing the bill.

Karpinski raised the stakes in his letter by vowing to use members’ vote in calculating their 2022 LCV Scorecard. Usually, the group’s policy suggestion letters say the group will merely consider using votes in its scoring.

Meanwhile, a host of the country’s biggest oil and gas interest groups wrote to members urging them to “reconsider policies within the legislation before proceeding.” Several Texas members are particularly close to the oil interest groups on the letter, and their contacts influenced the contours of the energy provisions. The final bill ended up considerably more generous to the industry, including mandated offshore lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and over $1 billion in funds to help companies reduce their methane emissions.

Republicans also took issue with provisions expanding funding for the Internal Revenue Service, characterizing it as the creation of an aggressive enforcement apparatus. Democrats denounce the characterization as a total fiction, saying the funding would go toward bureaucratic needs.

“If the Green New Deal and corporate welfare had a baby, it would look like this,” said U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, from the House floor. Brady is the outgoing ranking member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, called on fellow Republicans to completely defund the programs in the bill and repeal it if their party takes control of Congress next year.

“No more speeches. No more hearings,” Roy told Fox News. “Come in on day one and say we’re going to shut this government down. Shut it down.”


Disclosure: AARP has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Correction, Aug. 14, 2022: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of a Republican congressman. The congressman's name is August Pfluger, not August Plfuger.