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 GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGOP can beat Democrats after impeachment — but it needs to do this one thing Trump administration planning to crack down on 'birth tourism': report Senate begins preparations for Trump trial MORE (R-Iowa) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Biden calls for revoking tech legal shield | DHS chief 'fully expects' Russia to try to interfere in 2020 | Smaller companies testify against Big Tech 'monopoly power' Lawmakers call for FTC probe into top financial data aggregator Overnight Health Care: Progressives raise red flags over health insurer donations | Republican FTC commish backs Medicare negotiating drug prices | Trump moves to protect money for religious groups 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 McConnellDemocrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover up,' 'national disgrace' Romney pledges 'open mind' ahead of impeachment trial McConnell proposes compressed schedule for impeachment trial 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 ToomeyNSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show Overnight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns 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 CassidyWilliam (Bill) Morgan CassidyBig Pharma looks to stem losses after trade deal defeat Trump trade deal faces uncertain Senate timeline On The Money: Senate panel advances Trump's new NAFTA despite GOP gripes | Trade deficit falls to three-year low | Senate confirms Trump pick for small business chief 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 CornynDemocrats worry a speedy impeachment trial will shut out public Sunday shows - All eyes on Senate impeachment trial Cornyn disputes GAO report on withholding of Ukraine aid: It's 'certainly not a crime' 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) MenendezMedia's selective outrage exposed in McSally-Raju kerfuffle Dem senators say Iran threat to embassies not mentioned in intelligence briefing Overnight Defense: Iran crisis eases as Trump says Tehran 'standing down' | Dems unconvinced on evidence behind Soleimani strike | House sets Thursday vote on Iran war powers 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 John TrumpSanders apologizes to Biden for supporter's op-ed Jayapal: 'We will end up with another Trump' if the US doesn't elect progressive Democrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover up,' 'national disgrace' MORE and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiWhite House appoints GOP House members to advise Trump's impeachment team House revives agenda after impeachment storm Democrats worry a speedy impeachment trial will shut out public 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.”