Sanders, Warren stir Dem turmoil over cures bill

Sanders, Warren stir Dem turmoil over cures bill
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Senate Democrats are struggling with how to vote on a medical cures bill amid the vocal opposition of two liberal stalwarts: Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Hillary Clinton tears open wound with her attack on Sanders MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Trump on Clinton's Sanders comments: 'She's the one that people don't like' MORE (I-Vt.).

The measure, known as 21st Century Cures, has been the subject of bipartisan negotiations for over a year. It includes a range of Democratic priorities, including new funding for research at the National Institutes of Health and money to fight opioid addiction.

But Warren and Sanders this week came out strongly against the measure, blasting it as a giveaway to pharmaceutical companies.

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"At a time when Americans pay, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs, this bill provides absolutely no relief for soaring drug prices,” Sanders said in a statement.

Democrats in the past have been wary of crossing the two senators, who hold enormous clout with the party’s liberal base.

But some lobbyists and aides say they expect many Senate Democrats would ultimately come around to supporting the bill.

Senate Democratic leaders declined to take a public position Tuesday, stressing that they were waiting for the final language of the bill to be released in the House.

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSenate braces for bitter fight over impeachment rules Sunday shows - All eyes on Senate impeachment trial Durbin says he hopes enough GOP senators know that 'history will find you' MORE (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat, said he had not firmly made up his mind.

“I've gone back and forth, and the good news is it's changing apparently for the better from the Democratic perspective,” he said.

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He said Warren and Sanders are having sway in the caucus, but that instead of generating outright opposition, their objections have pushed Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayConservative groups aim to sink bipartisan fix to 'surprise' medical bills Democrats request briefing on intel behind Trump's embassy threat claim Democrats ask if US citizens were detained at border checkpoints due to Iranian national origin MORE (D-Wash.), the lead negotiator on the bill, to make it stronger.

“They already have [had sway] in the debates in our leadership, and I think it's led Senator Murray to call for changes,” Durbin said. “We think some of those will be reflected [in the latest version.]”

The bill is aimed at speeding up the Food and Drug Administration’s approval process for new drugs. The bill has appeal to Democrats because it contains a significant increase in funding for research at the National Institutes of Health: $4.8 billion over 10 years.

Warren and Sanders argue, though, that the measure is helping pharmaceutical companies by lowering FDA standards without getting much in return. They note that the NIH funding is not mandatory, meaning it is not guaranteed, and the measure does nothing to deal with the hot-button issue of high drug prices.

“It's time for Congress to stand up to the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies, not give them more handouts,” Sanders said in his statement.

Defenders of the bill note that the money for NIH is set aside in a separate fund that is not subject to the usual budget limits. The measure also includes $1 billion over two years to fight opioid addiction, long a priority of both parties, and funding for Vice President Biden’s “moonshot” to cure cancer.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidThe Trumpification of the federal courts Trump to rally evangelicals after critical Christianity Today editorial Left presses 2020 Democrats to retake the courts from Trump MORE (Nev.) praised the opioid and cancer funding on Tuesday, while noting that he is waiting for the final language to be released.

Reid acknowledged there is “angst” within his caucus on how to vote on the bill.

One consideration for Democrats is the fact that their bargaining leverage will be greatly diminished next year once Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpRouhani says Iran will never seek nuclear weapons Trump downplays seriousness of injuries in Iran attack after US soldiers treated for concussions Trump says Bloomberg is 'wasting his money' on 2020 campaign MORE is sworn in as president. The cures bill up for consideration now, the thinking goes, might be the best deal they’ll ever get.

The package also includes a mental health bill that Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphySenate Republicans muscle through rules for Trump trial Trump health chief: 'Not a need' for ObamaCare replacement plan right now Democrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover-up,' 'national disgrace' MORE (D-Conn.) and other Democrats have been working on. Murphy has praised the package.

Yet some Democrats expressed their frustration with the bill at the caucus lunch on Tuesday.

“There is growing concern among Democrats that this is not a good bill,” said a Senate Democratic aide.

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Consumer groups are sounding the alarm about the legislation, warning that the provisions in the legislation to speed up the FDA’s approval process would lower safety standards and endanger patients.

“They've obviously tried to make this package attractive to many members of Congress by adding increased funding for NIH,” said Dr. Michael Carome, director of the health research group at Public Citizen. 

But he said the bill’s FDA section “endangers public health.”

The House is set to vote on the bill on Wednesday, and some Democratic support is expected.

Democratic support is more important in the Senate, where at least six votes from their caucus will be needed to overcome a filibuster.