Trump-Pelosi fight threatens drug pricing talks

Trump-Pelosi fight threatens drug pricing talks
© Stefani Reynolds, Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew EPA rule would expand Trump officials' powers to reject FOIA requests Democratic senator introduces bill to ban gun silencers Democrats: Ex-Commerce aide said Ross asked him to examine adding census citizenship question MORE's new vow to cut off work with Democrats is threatening recent progress in bipartisan talks to lower drug prices.

Staffers for the White House and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report - In exclusive interview, Trump talks Biden, Iran, SCOTUS and reparations Lawmakers 'failed us' says ICE chief Pelosi, Democratic leaders seek to quell liberal revolt over border bill MORE's (D-Calif.) office have been in discussions for months about potential legislation to lower the cost of prescription drugs, and sources say the White House has expressed openness to some form of Medicare negotiating drug prices, a major Democratic goal that Trump supported during the 2016 campaign before backing off.

The White House talks with Pelosi’s staff have worried some Republicans, who fear that the administration is moving too far toward the Democratic position of empowering Medicare to negotiate prices.

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The discussions represent a rare opportunity for a bipartisan breakthrough between Pelosi and Trump. But getting a bipartisan drug pricing deal is an extremely tough task — one that may be even more difficult following a failed infrastructure meeting this week between Trump and Democratic leaders.

Trump on Wednesday cut off infrastructure talks with congressional Democrats until they stop investigating him, an ultimatum that raises new doubts about whether the president and Pelosi can stay on track to finalize a deal on drug pricing.

But in a potentially positive sign for the talks, a White House official said Thursday that discussions with Pelosi’s office on drug pricing are likely to move forward.

“We expect those talks to continue at a staff level,” the official told The Hill.

Pelosi’s office has been developing a plan that involves Medicare negotiating drug prices. It would allow an outside independent expert to set the price of a drug if Medicare and the manufacturer cannot find middle ground, followed by a 50 percent tax on a drug’s revenue if the drug company still does not reach an agreement.

The plan would not call for negotiating all drug prices, but instead would require talks for a minimum of 25 high-priced drugs. Some Republicans say that limitation could make the plan more amenable to the White House.

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Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley raises concerns about objectivity of report critical of GOP tax law's effects Overnight Health Care: Key Trump drug pricing proposal takes step forward | Missouri Planned Parenthood clinic loses bid for license | 2020 Democrats to take part in Saturday forum on abortion rights Key Trump proposal to lower drug prices takes step forward MORE (R-Iowa) told The Hill on Tuesday that he is concerned about the discussions of Pelosi’s plan with the White House.

“The only thing I've heard about it is that they've talked about some tool called arbitration,” Grassley said, referring to the use of an outside expert, or arbiter, to set the price. “I know that arbitration doesn't go over very well with Republicans.”

Asked if he thought the White House was open to arbitration, Grassley said, “Yeah, I think so.”

Grassley said he would prefer if the White House did not talk to Pelosi’s office and instead let bipartisan work in the Senate, and in his committee, play out.

“I don't know whether it's necessary for them to negotiate with Pelosi,” Grassley said.

Pelosi, however, faces her own internal pressures. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has warned that the plan her office is working on is too weak and does not do enough to lower drug prices.

Any deal between Pelosi and Trump would have to occur despite an intensely bitter environment where many members of the Democratic caucus are calling for Trump to be impeached.

Top House Democrats stress that they are not waiting for White House approval before acting on drug prices and that the chamber will ultimately act on drug prices no matter what the administration does.

“House Democrats are determined to advance bold, tough legislation to lower prescription drug prices, and we are moving forward no matter what this White House does,” Pelosi spokesman Henry Connelly said on Thursday.

Pelosi gave a rough outline of her drug pricing plan in a private meeting Wednesday night that included Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanWarren introduces universal child care legislation On The Money: DOJ offers legal opinion backing refusal to release Trump tax returns | Centrist Democrats raise concerns over minimum wage | Trump bashes Powell ahead of crucial Fed meeting | Design leaks for Harriet Tubman bill Centrist Democrats raise concerns over minimum wage push MORE (D-Wis.), a co-chair of the Progressive Caucus.

Pocan told reporters on Thursday that while he needed “more clarity” on the plan, he was concerned that the plan would apply only to a minimum of 25 drugs. That threshold is being treated as a floor, not a ceiling.

“I think if I went back home and told people we're going to save you on 25 drugs, if I don't get voted out of office I know I'll get at least laughed at,” Pocan said.

Progressives have also raised concerns about outsourcing the decision on setting a drug’s price to an outside arbiter. The new version of Pelosi’s plan shifts this power to a federal agency, the Government Accountability Office, but Pocan said it was unclear whether that change would be strong enough.

Any deal would have to get through the Republican-controlled Senate before becoming law, and Grassley took to the Senate floor this week to warn against Medicare negotiating drug prices.

Grassley said the idea “may sound good, but not even a spoonful of sugar will help a bad dose of policy medicine go down.”

“I hope this puts the issue to rest,” he added.

Still, support from Trump could help any potential legislation get through the Senate.

But for Pocan, appealing to the public for grass-roots pressure in support of a stronger plan is a smarter approach than trying to win the president’s approval.

“If she feels that those are useful, Godspeed,” Pocan said of Pelosi’s talks with Trump. 

But a better strategy, he said, is to “have a robust bill that we can go to the American people about rather than Donald Trump.”