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Senate panel advances bipartisan bill to lower drug prices amid GOP blowback

Senate panel advances bipartisan bill to lower drug prices amid GOP blowback
© Greg Nash

The Senate Finance Committee on Thursday voted to advance a bipartisan deal to lower drug prices to the full Senate, though nine Republicans voted against the measure. 

All Democrats on the panel supported the deal between Sens. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyHouse unveils antitrust package to rein in tech giants Iowa governor questions lack of notice on migrant children flights to Des Moines Senate crafts Pelosi alternative on drug prices MORE (R-Iowa) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Bipartisan group reaches infrastructure deal; many questions remain Senate panel advances nominations for key Treasury positions Overnight Health Care: US to donate 500 million Pfizer doses to other countries: reports | GOP's attacks on Fauci at center of pandemic message | Federal appeals court blocks Missouri abortion ban MORE (D-Ore.), leading to a final vote of 19-9. 

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The large number of GOP defections doesn't bode well for the likelihood of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellWhy the Democrats need Joe Manchin Out-of-touch Democrats running scared of progressives The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Bipartisan group reaches infrastructure deal; many questions remain MORE (R-Ky.) bringing the bill up for a vote in the full Senate, at least not without substantial changes.

The bill would impose a limit on drug price increases in Medicare’s prescription drug program, called Part D, by forcing drug companies to pay money back if their prices rise faster than inflation. 

Many Republican senators opposed this provision as a price control that violates GOP free-market orthodoxy, and therefore opposed the larger package. 

“I’ve heard from Iowans who have left prescriptions at the pharmacy counter or who skipped doses of their medicine to save money,” Grassley said, adding, “This is the moment for the Senate to act.”

Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyBlack women look to build upon gains in coming elections Watch live: GOP senators present new infrastructure proposal Sasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote MORE (R-Pa.) led the effort to strike from the bill the limit on price increases, an amendment that failed on a tie vote of 14-14, with just two Republicans, Grassley and Sen. Bill CassidyBill CassidyBipartisan lawmakers want Biden to take tougher action on Nicaragua The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Sights and sounds from Biden's UK visit Democrats wary of emerging bipartisan infrastructure deal MORE (R-La.), voting in favor of keeping the provision.  

“We should not use this sledgehammer of a universal Part D price control,” Toomey said. 

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynBipartisan lawmakers want Biden to take tougher action on Nicaragua Bipartisan Senate group announces infrastructure deal McConnell: 'Good chance' for infrastructure deal after talks unravel MORE (R-Texas) voted for the overall package but also objected to the limit on Medicare price increases. 

“This bill is not anywhere near action on the floor,” Cornyn said. “It’s more important that we get it right than that we get it done fast.”

The advancement of the measure was a rare loss for the powerful pharmaceutical industry, which denounced the bill. But there is a long road ahead with plenty of opportunities for the industry to stop the bill on its way to the full Senate. 

Democrats all supported the package but said more needed to be done. They pushed for an amendment that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, which has been a Democratic priority.

All Republicans voted to defeat that amendment, while all Democrats except Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSanders drops bid to block Biden's Israel arms sale Sanders push to block arms sale to Israel doomed in Senate Schumer tactics on China bill reveal broader trade strategy MORE (N.J.), voted in favor.

House Democrats are working on a rival drug pricing bill that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, removing a clause in current law that prevents Medicare from directly interfering in drug prices. 

Asked about the GOP objections to his bill, Grassley told reporters after the vote Thursday that Republicans should realize the Grassley-Wyden bill is more moderate than a potential deal between President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump DOJ demanded metadata on 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses, Apple says Putin says he's optimistic about working with Biden ahead of planned meeting Biden meets Queen Elizabeth for first time as president MORE and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiVaccinated lawmakers no longer required to wear masks on House floor Simmering Democratic tensions show signs of boiling over Pelosi signals no further action against Omar MORE (D-Calif.) would be. 

“You've got the president campaigning on doing away with the noninterference clause, who knows what he's going to do at the last minute,” Grassley told reporters. “If he would join forces with Pelosi, look at what that would do to everything that we Republicans stand for in the United States Senate.”

“It seems to me that the Grassley-Wyden approach is a very moderate approach to what could come out,” he added. “There's got to be a realization on the part of Republicans about that and there ought to be a realization on the part of pharmaceutical companies where they would be if we had the noninterference clause go away.”