Grassley gambles on drug price bill despite GOP doubts

Grassley gambles on drug price bill despite GOP doubts
© Greg Nash

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGOP lawmakers distance themselves from Trump comments on transfer of power The Hill's 12:30 Report: Ginsburg lies in repose Top GOP senators say Hunter Biden's work 'cast a shadow' over Obama Ukraine policy MORE (R-Iowa) is pushing forward with a bipartisan deal to lower drug prices this week despite objections from some members of his own party and a tough road ahead.

The Finance Committee will vote on the deal between Grassley and Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns On The Money: Anxious Democrats push for vote on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi, Mnuchin ready to restart talks | Weekly jobless claims increase | Senate treads close to shutdown deadline Democratic senators ask inspector general to investigate IRS use of location tracking service MORE (Ore.), the panel's top Democrat, on Thursday, setting up a closely watched vote for Republican senators.

Many GOP senators are objecting that the plan is too close to price controls for drugs, which Republicans have traditionally opposed.

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The concerns from within the GOP ranks make it less likely that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocratic senator to party: 'A little message discipline wouldn't kill us' House to vote on resolution affirming peaceful transition of power Republican lawyers brush off Trump's election comments MORE (R-Ky.) will bring the bill up for a vote in the full Senate, given he has been reluctant to vote on issues that split his caucus, particularly with a presidential election approaching.

But the announcement from Grassley and Wyden of a deal on Tuesday is a step forward, and the White House made favorable comments on Tuesday, which could help ease GOP lawmakers’ concerns.

The bill's most contentious measure imposes a new limit on price increases in Medicare's prescription drug program, called Part D, forcing drug companies to pay money back if prices rise faster than inflation. The measure also caps Medicare beneficiaries' out-of-pocket costs.

GOP lawmakers could face a tough decision.

In a negative sign for the deal’s chances, Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneHouse to vote on resolution affirming peaceful transition of power Trump dumbfounds GOP with latest unforced error Senate passes resolution reaffirming commitment to peaceful transition of power MORE (R-S.D.), the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, told reporters Tuesday he has concerns with the new limits on price increases in saying they are a departure from “free market forces.”

“I suspect I’m not the only one who [has] concerns,” Thune said.

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But in a positive sign, the White House praised the measure.

“We will work with Senators to ensure this proposal moves forward and advances the President’s priority of lowering drug prices even further and increasing transparency in healthcare for the benefit of all Americans,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere.

Grassley is touting the analysis of the measure from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to try to win over Republican senators.

The CBO found that the measure will save taxpayers more $100 billion over a 10-year period. It will also lower out of pocket costs for Medicare beneficiaries by $27 billion and lower premiums by $5 billion according to the CBO.

“I think it’s moving in a positive direction,” said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynHillicon Valley: Productivity, fatigue, cybersecurity emerge as top concerns amid pandemic | Facebook critics launch alternative oversight board | Google to temporarily bar election ads after polls close Lawmakers introduce legislation to boost cybersecurity of local governments, small businesses On The Trail: Making sense of this week's polling tsunami MORE (R-Texas). “The CBO score was certainly encouraging.”

But other GOP senators sounded a less positive note.

“I still have some concerns, but I hope we can work it out,” said Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Washington on edge amid SCOTUS vacancy The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by National Industries for the Blind - Trump seeks to flip 'Rage' narrative; Dems block COVID-19 bill GOP senators say coronavirus deal dead until after election MORE (R-Kan.). Asked if he could vote for it on Thursday, Roberts said, “We’ll see.”

Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanMcConnell locks down key GOP votes in Supreme Court fight Romney undecided on authorizing subpoenas for GOP Obama-era probes Congress needs to prioritize government digital service delivery MORE (R-Ohio) also said he wants changes.

Grassley's bill can also expect fierce pushback from drug companies, who have long been a powerful force in Washington.

Drug companies staunchly oppose the deal, and the pharmaceutical lobby was whipping votes against the deal on Tuesday, industry lobbyists said.

Steve Ubl, the CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, warned that the measure would impose “price controls” and siphon billions of dollars away from research and development by drug companies.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. Former Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick MORE’s attention to the bill will be a key factor. If he leans in and pressures McConnell to bring it up for a vote, it would improve the measure’s chances.

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Trump has made lowering drug prices a priority and opened the door to working with Democrats on the issue. The administration's own efforts to lower drug costs have seen mixed results, leaving the president and allies eager for a legislative win on the issue.

But there will be competition for Trump's support, in particular from a rival drug pricing bill in the House.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocratic senator to party: 'A little message discipline wouldn't kill us' Overnight Health Care: New wave of COVID-19 cases builds in US | Florida to lift all coronavirus restrictions on restaurants, bars | Trump stirs questions with 0 drug coupon plan Overnight 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 MORE’s (D-Calif.) office said Monday that it will unveil House Democrats’ own drug pricing bill in September.

That measure will go farther than the Senate bill by allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, a measure that has long been a top priority for Democrats but that is largely opposed by Republicans.

Pelosi aide Wendell Primus said Monday that he is “still very optimistic” that Trump will sign on to what House Democrats are working on.

In the upper chamber, Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderPelosi urges early voting to counter GOP's high court gambit: 'There has to be a price to pay' Graham: GOP has votes to confirm Trump's Supreme Court nominee before the election The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Washington on edge amid SCOTUS vacancy MORE (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health Committee, and 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.) are also working on their own package to lower health care costs.

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Trump’s support is far from assured, though, and getting either the House bill or a Senate bill through the full upper chamber will be an extremely tough task.

There is also pressure from the left, especially in the House, to make the efforts even stronger.

In the Senate, progressive Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownMnuchin says he and Pelosi have agreed to restart coronavirus stimulus talks Harris faces pivotal moment with Supreme Court battle Remote work poses state tax challenges MORE (D-Ohio) said the Grassley–Wyden deal is “a start” but said he would like it to go further.

“It’s a start, but you can’t do this right unless you have direct negotiation with the drug companies,” Brown said Tuesday.

“I think they're making progress. I appreciate the work Wyden did on the bill, I think Grassley made some progress here," he continued. "But I'm going to look at it and understand it better.”