Booker tries to shake doubts about pharmaceutical ties ahead of 2020

Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerOutsider candidates outpoll insider candidates The Hill's Campaign Report: Bloomberg looks to upend Democratic race Poll: Biden support hits record low of 26 percent MORE (D-N.J.) is trying to overcome doubts that he is too close to the pharmaceutical industry ahead of an expected presidential campaign.

The progressive criticism of Booker reached a crescendo in early 2017 when he voted against a budget amendment calling for importing drugs from abroad.

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The line of attack played into broader fears from progressives that Booker is not tough enough on corporations in general, including Wall Street.

“Cory Booker And A Bunch Of Democrats Prove Trump Right On Big Pharma,” read a headline in HuffPost.

Booker argued at the time that he supports importing drugs but that the measure lacked standards to ensure the drugs being brought into the country are safe. He later helped draft a revised importation bill with more safety standards. 

On Thursday, he appeared alongside democratic socialist Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Overnight Health Care: Top health official defends contract payments to Trump allies | Vaping advocates confident Trump will turn from flavor ban | Sanders gets endorsement from nurses union Krystal Ball credits Gabbard's upswing in 2020 race to 'feckless' Democratic establishment MORE (I-Vt.), a potential presidential rival, at a press conference on lowering drug prices.

Booker spoke out in strong terms against drug companies and the “outrageous and unjustifiably high cost of prescription drugs.”

Some progressives say appearing with Sanders and signing onto drug pricing bills with him was a good step, but they still have doubts about Booker.

“It is meaningful that he recognized the error of his ways and has come in support of some important reforms of the pharmaceutical industry,” said Neil Sroka, communications director for the progressive group Democracy for America.

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“But there’s overriding concern about Cory Booker’s willingness to confront corporate power in all of its forms,” Sroka added, referencing his positions on Wall Street and education in addition to drugs.

Running in a race against progressive standard-bearers like Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Overnight Energy: BLM staff face choice of relocation or resignation as agency moves | Trump says he's 'very much into climate' | EPA rule would expand limits on scientific studies Krystal Ball credits Gabbard's upswing in 2020 race to 'feckless' Democratic establishment MORE (D-Mass.) could put a spotlight on perceptions Booker does not sufficiently stand up to corporations.

The sweeping legislation Booker supported on Thursday, though, is fiercely opposed by the pharmaceutical industry.

The bills would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, allow importation of drugs from Canada, and strip monopolies from drug companies if their prices are above those in other wealthy countries.

Peter Maybarduk, a drug pricing expert at the progressive group Public Citizen, declined to comment on Booker’s history on drug pricing issues, but noted that on Thursday “he has signed onto a very serious piece of legislation that the pharmaceutical lobby will do everything it can to beat.”

Booker defended himself on Thursday when asked about the 2017 vote, saying “it was a late-night messaging amendment” and that he quickly went to work in the following days to draft a revised importation bill that did have enough safety standards.

“I've always supported imports, and we have a piece of legislation right now that will ensure safety, will drive down costs to taxpayers and will give people access to prescription drugs,” Booker said.  

He then referenced another progressive priority he has signed on to: “This should be an issue of American right to quality health care, it's why I support Medicare for All.”

Booker has signed onto other drug pricing legislation over the last two years as well, including a sweeping bill from then-Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenTake Trump literally and seriously in Minnesota Ninth woman accuses Al Franken of inappropriate contact Al Franken to host SiriusXM radio show MORE (D-Minn.) in 2017 that allowed Medicare to negotiate drug prices and increased transparency. Booker also released a report last year criticizing drug companies for not using their savings from the GOP tax bill to reduce drug prices. 

New Jersey is home to the headquarters of a slew of pharmaceutical companies, and lawmakers traditionally champion their home-state industries.

“Like every senator or representative, he’s pitching for the home team and the home team in New Jersey is pharma,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.  

Booker has also sought to tamp down questions about his fundraising from pharmaceutical companies.

Booker raised more money from the pharmaceutical industry in 2014 than any other senator, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Booker ran in two elections in that cycle, because there was first a special election in 2013. 

In 2017, Booker announced he was putting a “pause” on taking contributions from drug companies “because it arouses so much criticism.”

Last year, he stopped taking money from all corporate PACs.

“We need to get our politics away from money, that’s why we need to end Citizens United,” Booker said Thursday. “And the pharmaceutical industry is a great example.”

“We have an industry right now that has been able to stop the government from negotiating fairer prices, from using our market leverage to negotiate fairer prices,” Booker said. “That's outrageous. And so to what Sen. Sanders has said and some of my congressional colleagues have said: Enough is enough.” 

UPDATED 9:02 a.m. Jan. 14: This story was updated to reflect that Booker ran in two elections in the 2014 cycle because of a special election.