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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 GrassleyGrassley to vote against Tanden nomination Grassley says he'll decide this fall whether to run in 2022 Yellen deputy Adeyemo on track for quick confirmation MORE (R-Iowa) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHouse Democrats pass sweeping .9T COVID-19 relief bill with minimum wage hike House set for tight vote on COVID-19 relief package On The Money: Democrats scramble to save minimum wage hike | Personal incomes rise, inflation stays low after stimulus burst 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 McConnellTrump at CPAC foments 2022 GOP primary wars Hawley gets boisterous ovation at CPAC for Electoral College objection   Why Congress must invoke the 14th Amendment now 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 ToomeyPhilly GOP commissioner on censures: 'I would suggest they censure Republican elected officials who are lying' Toomey censured by several Pennsylvania county GOP committees over impeachment vote Toomey on Trump vote: 'His betrayal of the Constitution' required conviction 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 CassidyRepublicans see Becerra as next target in confirmation wars Overnight Health Care: Johnson & Johnson vaccine safe, effective in FDA analysis | 3-4 million doses coming next week | White House to send out 25 million masks Koch-backed group launches ads urging lawmakers to reject COVID-19 relief bill 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 CornynBiden pledges support for Texas amid recovery from winter storm Partisan headwinds threaten Capitol riot commission Biden turns focus to winter storm with Texas trip 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) MenendezSenate confirms Thomas-Greenfield as UN ambassador The Memo: Biden bets big on immigration Biden pushes expanded pathways to citizenship as immigration bill lands in Congress 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 TrumpBiden to hold virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican president More than 300 charged in connection to Capitol riot Trump Jr.: There are 'plenty' of GOP incumbents who should be challenged MORE and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse Democrats pass sweeping .9T COVID-19 relief bill with minimum wage hike Budget Committee chair pledges to raise minimum wage: 'Hold me to it' Capitol review to recommend adding more fencing, 1,000 officers: report 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.”