High stakes as Trump, Dems open drug price talks

Democrats and the Trump administration are beginning to hold talks on lowering drug prices as they look for a rare area of common ground.

Both President TrumpDonald John TrumpMnuchin knocks Greta Thunberg's activism: Study economics and then 'come back' to us The Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial MORE and congressional Democrats say that lowering drug prices is a priority, providing a potential area for bipartisan action in a government that is otherwise bitterly divided after a months-long fight over border security.

But the political risks are high for both sides in a politically polarized atmosphere and with the 2020 elections rapidly approaching.

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Trump and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSekulow indicates White House not interested in motion to dismiss impeachment articles Overnight Health Care: Trump restores funding for Texas program that bars Planned Parenthood | Trump to attend March for Life | PhRMA spent record on 2019 lobbying Key House committee chairman to meet with Mnuchin on infrastructure next week MORE (D-Calif.) spoke briefly about working together to lower drug prices during a phone call at the end of January and their staffs have begun preliminary discussions, according to a Democratic aide.

Rep. Peter WelchPeter Francis WelchProviding more information on the prescription drug supply chain will help lower costs for all Impeachment hearing breaks into laughter after Democrat contrasts it to Hallmark movie Diplomat ties Trump closer to Ukraine furor MORE (D-Vt.), one of the House’s fiercest critics of the pharmaceutical industry, also spoke with acting White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyWhat to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial Biden says he would not engage in witness swap in impeachment trial Schumer blasts GOP votes over witnesses, documents at trial MORE during a trip to Camp David last weekend.

And Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar has been talking to dozens of congressional Democrats, including House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard NealRichard Edmund NealKey House committee chairman to meet with Mnuchin on infrastructure next week Coalition of conservative groups to air ads against bipartisan proposal to end 'surprise' medical bills House revives agenda after impeachment storm MORE (D-Mass.). He also met with Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.

“We're hopeful,” Welch told The Hill. “I spent some time at Camp David talking with Mick Mulvaney about it.”

“He brought it up, he was just very affirmative about the president's desire to make some progress on this,” Welch added.

Despite the flurry of talks, there is still plenty of reason to doubt that a breakthrough on drug prices, or any major bipartisan goal, can be accomplished. Democrats and Trump are still dealing with the fallout from the border wall standoff, and bracing for a contentious legal fight after the president on Friday declared a national emergency at the border.

Trump has also recently cast doubt on working with Democrats, who with control of the House have stepped up their investigations into his campaign and administration. During his State of the Union address, he derided them as "ridiculous partisan investigations," and warned the probes would hurt the chance for bipartisan achievements.

And with 2020 quickly approaching, a number of Senate Democrats have jumped into the presidential race, complicating hopes for a bipartisan deal. For some Democrats, there is little upside to giving Trump a major legislative victory heading into an election.

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And both sides are rife with skeptics that those across the table are ready to push ahead on the issue.

“I think the administration needs to stand up to the drug lobby and they won't any more than they stand up to the gun lobby or Wall Street,” said Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownSunday shows - All eyes on Senate impeachment trial Senate Democrat: 'Fine' to hear from Hunter Biden Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers gear up for Senate impeachment trial MORE (D-Ohio), a possible presidential candidate who attended the meeting with Azar on Wednesday.

Still, Brown called Azar “very smart” and said the administration had proposed “a few good things” on drug prices.

Other key Democrats struck a more hopeful note.

Neal, the Ways and Means chairman, said at a hearing on drug prices on Tuesday that he has had “encouraging conversations” with Azar, specifically on a proposal to make drug companies pay rebates back to the government if their prices for certain drugs in Medicare Part B rise faster than the rate of inflation.

“Secretary Azar and the Trump Administration are committed to working across the aisle and have made it clear that all options that preserve drug safety, protect innovation, and keep patients at the center are on the table,” Health and Human Services spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said in a statement after Azar’s meeting with Senate Democrats on Wednesday.

House Democratic leaders are planning to move first on a package of “low-hanging fruit” drug pricing bills that are smaller measures that have some bipartisan support, before later moving on to more partisan proposals like allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices.

It is possible that the smaller, bipartisan measures could make it through the Senate as well, given that Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOn The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Grassley signs USMCA, sending it to Trump's desk | Union membership falls to record low | Manufacturers want Trump tax provision made permanent | Warren presses banks on climate plans PhRMA spent record-high million on lobbying in 2019 Grassley signs USMCA, sending it to Trump's desk MORE (R-Iowa) supports several of the key components, such as preventing drug companies from using gaming tactics to delay competition from cheaper generic drugs.

House Democrats are then expected to move on to a more partisan bill on allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices. That measure has little, if any, chance of making it through the Senate but will allow Democrats to showcase their priorities.

Democratic leaders have begun working on the Medicare negotiation bill, but have not yet settled on the details. One major question is what enforcement mechanism they will include in the bill to force drug companies to the table if they decline to negotiate.

“We’re working on it; we don’t have a draft yet,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneOvernight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — Deal on surprise medical bills faces obstacles | House GOP unveils rival drug pricing measure ahead of Pelosi vote | Justices to hear case over billions in ObamaCare payments Obstacles remain for deal on surprise medical bills This week: House impeachment inquiry hits crucial stretch MORE (D-N.J.) said of the Medicare negotiation bill on Wednesday.

The vast number of issues at play in drug pricing and the large number of important players, on Capitol Hill and beyond, make the prospect of any action challenging.

Still, in the upper chamber, one senior lawmaker held out hope that the administration and Democrats could move forward.  

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenRestlessness, light rule-breaking and milk spotted on Senate floor as impeachment trial rolls on Hillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — UN calls for probe into alleged Saudi hack of Bezos | Experts see effort to 'silence' Washington Post | Bezos tweets tribute to Khashoggi Bezos tweets tribute to Khashoggi in wake of reports of Saudi phone hacking MORE (D-Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said that he secured a commitment from Azar at the meeting Wednesday to work with him on another priority, Wyden’s bill to cap seniors’ out-of-pocket drug costs in Medicare.

“He started in talking about how much he favors an out of pocket limit for seniors and I said ‘Secretary, I've had a bill on that for two years,’ and finally I said, ‘Will you send your people over to talk to mine so we can pass that bill quickly?’ ” Wyden recounted.

Wyden said that Azar agreed.

“If the administration will do what they said they were going to do,” Wyden added. “I said, ‘I've had this bill for two years, let’s go’ and he said, ‘Ok.’ ”