Sanders, Warren stir Dem turmoil over cures bill

Sanders, Warren stir Dem turmoil over cures bill
© Getty

Senate Democrats are struggling with how to vote on a medical cures bill amid the vocal opposition of two liberal stalwarts: Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOvernight Defense: Appeals court revives House lawsuit against military funding for border wall | Dems push for limits on transferring military gear to police | Lawmakers ask for IG probe into Pentagon's use of COVID-19 funds On The Money: Half of states deplete funds for Trump's 0 unemployment expansion | EU appealing ruling in Apple tax case | House Democrats include more aid for airlines in coronavirus package Warren, Khanna request IG investigation into Pentagon's use of coronavirus funds MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Sanders tells Maher 'there will be a number of plans' to remove Trump if he loses Sirota reacts to report of harassment, doxing by Harris supporters 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

"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 DurbinHawley warns Schumer to steer clear of Catholic-based criticisms of Barrett Two Judiciary Democrats say they will not meet with Trump's Supreme Court pick Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 MurraySenate Democrats introduce legislation to probe politicization of pandemic response Trump health officials grilled over reports of politics in COVID-19 response CDC director pushes back on Caputo claim of 'resistance unit' at agency 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 ReidSupreme Court fight pushes Senate toward brink The Supreme Court vacancy — yet another congressional food fight Trump seeks to turn around campaign with Supreme Court fight 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 TrumpBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Pelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act 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 MurphyDemocratic senator calls for 'more flexible' medical supply chain to counter pandemics The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Don't expect a government check anytime soon GOP chairman to release interim report on Biden probe 'in about a week' 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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.