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Political tensions escalate as drug pricing bills move forward

Rift began when Pelosi called for Medicare to negotiate prices for a set of high-cost drugs

Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa unveiled the text of his committee's drug pricing bill on Wednesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa unveiled the text of his committee's drug pricing bill on Wednesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The discord between the parties over plans to bring down drug costs deepened this week as Democrats insisted on allowing Medicare to negotiate prices and launched an impeachment inquiry that threatens to consume Congress.

Still, members of key committees said Wednesday they wanted to continue bipartisan work to lower costs, a major concern of voters, and lawmakers in both chambers took steps toward advancing their proposals. The House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee held the first hearing on legislation unveiled last week by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and Democrats leaving a caucus meeting on drug legislation late Wednesday said markups are expected soon after a two-week recess in October. Meanwhile, Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa and ranking Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon unveiled the text of their bill on Wednesday.

The political rift emerged last week when Pelosi released her legislation, which would, among other things, require Medicare to negotiate prices for a set of high-cost drugs. The legislation effectively replaced a bipartisan draft released earlier this year by committee leaders to redesign Medicare’s Part D prescription drug benefit.

[Pelosi says key component of drug pricing bill not open to negotiations]

The tensions were compounded Tuesday by Pelosi’s announcement that the chamber would launch a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump over allegations that he pressured Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate the business dealings of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s son.

Trump effectively shut down hopes of any bipartisan deal on drug pricing or otherwise following the announcement. “House Democrats have destroyed any chances of legislative progress for the people of this country by continuing to focus all their energy on partisan political attacks,” said White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham in a statement.

But Pelosi told reporters Wednesday the president had a very different tone when she spoke with him Tuesday.

“That’s not what he told me,” she said following a drug pricing press conference led by the lobbying group Health Care Voter. “Actually, the president called yesterday to talk about how to work together on gun violence prevention, but he said he still hadn’t come to a conclusion.”

The two did not discuss drug pricing during the call, she added, but she expressed optimism that Trump’s concerns over the high cost of drugs would outweigh his anger over the impeachment inquiry.

“I certainly hope so,” she said. “I don’t think that erases any concern he might have for America’s working families and their need for lower drug prices.”

Grassley said he was unaware of the White House statement, but had heard that Pelosi still intended to work toward a drug price compromise.

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“I wish the president or the White House, whoever’s doing it, wouldn’t say just because of impeachment we’re going to shut everything down,” he told reporters. “I would criticize the Democrats that if they don’t want to work on things like the USMCA [trade deal] and drug pricing and things that I’m interested in, that it proves that they’re only interested in politics.”

But Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, blasted House Democrats in comments on the Senate floor Wednesday, saying the inquiry dashes any chances of bipartisan legislation.

“Instead of working with both sides of the aisle to pass bipartisan legislation, to lower drug costs, to try to address the concern about mass shootings — that is not the route they have chosen,” he said. “Democrats’ decision to move forward with impeachment and toward removing the president from office will make solving these big challenges facing our country nearly impossible.”

[Senate bill’s drug pricing provision raises industry alarms]

Concerns in committee

House Republicans were already frustrated by the bill’s drafting process, which happened behind closed doors, even excluding many Democrats. Oregon’s Greg Walden, the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, condemned the “radio silence” on the bipartisan legislation committee staffers were developing before the unveiling of Pelosi’s plan.

“These are hard words for me to say because you are my friends, but this is partisan politics at its worst and it’s an avoidable failure — a failure to build on our bipartisan progress to lower prescription drug prices for consumers,” he said at the Energy and Commerce hearing.

But California Democrat Anna G. Eshoo, chairwoman of the Health Subcommittee, noted that key Republicans backed nearly all of the bill’s signature provisions in one way or another. She added that the bill was also open to amendments through the regular committee process.

Pelosi’s bill contains a provision similar to the bipartisan committee draft to lower government costs and cap patient cost-sharing under the Medicare Part D prescription drug program. It also contains a measure similar to a pending proposal from the Trump administration that would tie U.S. drug prices to those paid by other wealthy countries, as well as a cap restricting price increases to the rate of inflation — a provision also in Grassley’s bill.

Trump also famously campaigned in 2016 on letting Medicare negotiate drug prices, the bill’s signature provision.

“We all need to take a deep breath and really roll our sleeves up and look for the opportunities to work together,” Eshoo said.

Looking ahead

Pelosi’s bill is on a collision course with Grassley’s legislation, given her refusal to drop the idea of Medicare negotiation and Republicans’ rejection of that.

The bipartisan Senate measure, which the Finance Committee approved in July by a 19-9 vote, has split Republicans over a provision to cap the amount that drug manufacturers could raise prices year-over-year at inflation. Grassley argues the provision is crucial to securing Democratic support, and said it would be a “waste of time” to put the measure on the floor without that section.

Grassley is trying to position his bill as a middle ground for Republicans to address an issue that he says is crucial for the GOP to keep control of the Senate next year.

“Every Republican up for election is going to have to have a place to land, and this is the place to land,” he said. “They’re certainly not going to land with what Pelosi’s doing.”

Grassley acknowledged that the drug pricing measure may not come up for a vote this year, which he attributed largely to the ticking congressional clock and a two-week October recess.

One of the committees charged with marking up drug pricing legislation, House Ways and Means, is also one of six panels tasked with the impeachment inquiry.

After House Democrats huddled Wednesday afternoon to discuss the bill, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Massachusetts, said he would like “to do something” as soon as the first week the House is back in session after the recess but did not specify a date.

Lawmakers said that in the meeting, they discussed progressives’ request to increase the minimum number of drugs that the Department of Health and Human Services would have to negotiate the price for from 25. The briefing also provided guidance on selling the bill to constituents and demonstrating that Democrats are focused on important legislative issues even amid the impeachment inquiry, members said.

“We’re doing this even as the impeachment battle emerges because it’s an opportunity for us to reinforce that we want to do the legislative activity that really makes a difference for everyday people,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont.

Ways and Means Committee member Judy Chu, D-California, said Democrats were advised on how to respond to criticisms from the drug industry and conservatives that the bill would harm innovation.

“The drug companies spend more on advertising than they do on research and development, and they sell these drugs in other countries and still are able to make a profit,” she said. “Certainly, the research can continue.”

The distance between the parties is as high as ever, with Republicans continuing to label Democrats as “socialists” because of their health care agenda.

But Democrats are publicly calling for a deal in spite of the impeachment inquiry.

“Once this begins, you’re going to have ample opportunity to still talk about prescription drugs and infrastructure and other things that we can get done with the White House,” Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, said. “I would argue the president all the more is going to want to show something besides racist rants and a non-existent wall to run on for re-election.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee which also approved legislation that includes drug pricing provisions, said he expects to continue working on the issue.

“I would hope that both Democrats and Republicans would want to keep working to lower health care costs,” the Tennessee Republican said.

Andrew Siddons contributed to this story.


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