Dorgan gets invite from Obama

President Barack Obama has invited Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) to the White House for a meeting in the coming weeks, stoking speculation that a Cabinet post may be next for the retiring senator.

Dorgan, an outspoken populist who announced this month that he plans to leave the Senate at the end of the year, has vowed not to go quietly.

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 Dorgan said in an interview he has no plans to drop his fight to allow the importation of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and other countries, even though that would put Obama and Democratic leaders in an awkward spot.

 The White House invitation raises speculation over whether Obama may offer Dorgan a Cabinet post, or perhaps try to dissuade him from pushing the prescription drug legislation separately or as an amendment to other bills.

Dorgan failed to win enough support to attach his drug reimportation legislation as an amendment to the healthcare bill that passed the Senate in December.

“I really hope still to get that prescription drug bill done this year,” Dorgan said in an interview with The Hill. “I didn’t get it done as part of healthcare reform, but we’re going to get this battle done outside of healthcare.”

Obama had supported the drug reimportation legislation when he was a senator. But many health experts believe Obama last year made a promise to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) that he would oppose it as part of a deal. Both the White House and the drug companies deny that was offered in exchange for a promise from the drug companies to provide seniors with $80 billion in discounts and not to oppose the health overhaul.

Dorgan downplayed talk that he may receive a plum post and refused to back down an inch from his effort to pass prescription drug legislation, which he says could save about $100 billion for consumers and taxpayers over 10 years.

“I have people who voted against it during the healthcare debate because they thought it would doom the [reform] bill,” he said.

 Dorgan noted that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who lobbied colleagues to defeat Dorgan’s drug reimportation amendment during the healthcare debate, had supported it in the past.

 The president and Democratic leaders who negotiated the deal could be accused of acting in bad faith if they turned around and approved a drug importation measure after the broader healthcare reform bill became law.

Turning on the drug industry so soon could make it more difficult to negotiate future deals with business groups.

“There’s absolutely no way to guarantee the safety and efficacy of medicines brought into the U.S. outside the FDA’s control,” said Ken Johnson, a senior vice president at PhRMA. “We’ve always opposed risky importation schemes and we will continue to vigorously oppose them in the future.”

Some Democrats are skeptical that Dorgan will have much chance of persuading his colleagues to revisit the prescription drug importation issue, one that has broad bipartisan support but split Democrats during the healthcare debate. With financial reform, homeland security and climate change ahead on the calendar, some Democratic aides believe drug reimportation will have to wait.

 Colleagues are well-aware of Dorgan’s willingness to fight lonely crusades, as he did on behalf of consumers and taxpayers during his 10-year chairmanship of the Democratic Policy Committee.

 Most recently, he led extensive investigations of waste and fraud associated with military contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan because the Senate Armed Services Committee was busy handling other war-related issues.

 

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Dorgan, who grew up in a small farming town and whose family belonged to a progressive farmers’ union, is a throwback to a more populist era of Democratic politics. He said the political system “is too responsive to the biggest economic interests and not responsive enough to families trying to get through the day.”

 Dorgan made clear his differences with the administration at the beginning of last year.

 He was unenthusiastic about the appointments of Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner.

 He stated his preference for a carbon tax instead of the cap-and-trade plan pushed by Obama.

 He sought greater cost controls on insurance and drug companies in the healthcare bill.

He does not support allowing a path to citizenship to illegal immigrants as part of a broad immigration reform package.

 Despite Dorgan’s staunch independence, Obama has made a friendly overture to the lawmaker since learning of his pending retirement.

 “He called me and was very generous,” Dorgan said of his phone conversation with Obama last week. “He indicated that he understood that I wanted to do other things. He wanted me to come down in the next month or two and talk to me about the future.”

 Obama told Dorgan he was sorry to see Dorgan leave the Senate but did not try to persuade him to stay, according to Dorgan.

 This has prompted speculation that Obama may offer Dorgan a position in the administration, although Dorgan demurred: “I don’t know that he had anything specific in mind.”

 Dorgan serves on the Appropriations, Commerce, Energy and Natural Resources and Indian Affairs committees.

 One rumor circulated that Dorgan might replace Ken Salazar as secretary of the Interior Department, but Salazar announced late last week that he would not run for governor of Colorado.

 Dorgan is qualified to serve as secretary of Energy, given his years of work on energy issues on the Senate Appropriations and Commerce panels. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, however, does not appear ready to leave his post.

 “The question is what’s available,” said a Dorgan ally off Capitol Hill, noting that positions may open later in Obama’s administration.

 Obama could put Dorgan in the role of special policy czar or government watchdog.

 As chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, Dorgan showed a knack for digging deep into overlooked government management issues.

 Under Dorgan the committee investigated prescription drug and health insurance pricing and government contracting in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. He views his oversight of Iraq contracts during the Bush administration as a signature achievement.