Conservatives buck Trump over worries of 'socialist' drug pricing

Conservatives are growing increasingly uneasy with the Trump administration's new drug pricing policy.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump orders US troops back to active duty for coronavirus response Trump asserts power to decide info inspector general for stimulus gives Congress Fighting a virus with the wrong tools MORE is desperately seeking an elusive political win in his efforts to lower prescription drug costs, but he faces a hard sell to conservative groups and GOP lawmakers as he touts ideas traditionally favored by Democrats and presidential candidate Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike Overnight Energy: Court upholds Trump repeal of Obama fracking rule | Oil price drop threatens fracking boom | EPA eases rules on gasoline sales amid coronavirus The Hill's Campaign Report: Sanders pushes on in 2020 race MORE (I-Vt.).

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In a rare break with Trump, conservatives are now pushing back against key administration policies and accusing the president of supporting what they call Sanders-style socialism.

The president has embraced importing drugs from Canada, as well as an international pricing policy that would bar Medicare from paying more than other countries for prescription drugs.

The moves are designed to co-opt Democratic talking points and position Trump as a populist champion of the free market.

Trump has made lowering drug prices a top priority of his presidency, but he has suffered some high-profile setbacks in recent weeks.

Drug importation and the international pricing caps proposal are the only remaining policies remaining that the White House can use to make a splash heading into 2020.

Trump has frequently railed against “global freeloading” and said he doesn’t think it’s fair that the U.S. subsidizes research and development in other countries.

Last year he went to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and announced the plan to cap U.S. payments for expensive drugs, over the objections of some White House advisers.

Those objections later spread to include conservative groups.

Facebook ads this year from FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group, urged people to tell HHS Secretary Alex Azar to oppose “socialist-style price controls.”

Another ad warned the administration against “importing socialist European drug prices in America.”

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Separately, a website sponsored by the American Conservative Union rails against the administration’s pricing index, calling it an experiment “directly out of the Bernie Sanders and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton on US leading in coronavirus cases: Trump 'did promise "America First"' Democratic fears rise again as coronavirus pushes Biden to sidelines Clintons send pizza to NY hospital staff treating coronavirus MORE government health care takeover playbook.”

In the GOP-controlled Senate, a bill backed by the administration is facing Republican opposition over a provision that would impose a limit on drug price increases in Medicare’s Part D prescription drug program.

The legislation would force drug companies to pay money back to the government if their prices rise faster than inflation.

The Senate Finance Committee approved the measure late last month in a 19-9 vote — all Democrats voted for it, and all nine “no” votes came from Republicans. Some GOP senators said they were concerned because they think the Medicare Part D provision violates traditional free-market principles.

The bill faces long odds of making it to the Senate floor without substantial changes.

“I'm not comfortable with putting price controls on drugs,” 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.), a member of the Finance Committee, told The Hill.

Toomey offered an amendment to strip out the provision, which failed on a tie vote of 14-14. All but two Republicans voted for his amendment.

Aside from capping drug payments, Trump has also softened his stance on importing drugs from Canada. The administration last week announced a proposal that would set the groundwork for states or wholesalers to launch pilot programs to safely import drugs.

Shipping in drugs from abroad has long been a goal of progressives like Sanders, but has also won the support of libertarian-leaning conservatives like GOP Sens. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulCoronavirus in Congress: Lawmakers who have tested positive Pennsylvania congressman tests positive for coronavirus South Carolina congressman tests positive for coronavirus MORE (Ky.), Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump faces mounting pressure to unleash Defense Production Act Overnight Energy: House stimulus aims to stem airline pollution | Environmental measures become sticking point in Senate talks | Progressives propose T 'green stimulus' GOP blames environmental efforts, but Democrats see public health problems with stimulus MORE (Texas) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeTrump on Romney's negative coronavirus test: 'I am so happy I can barely speak' Romney says he tested negative for coronavirus, will remain in quarantine Paul defends actions before coronavirus diagnosis, calls for more testing MORE (Utah).

But with Trump looking for a win on drug pricing, political analysts and health experts argue he doesn’t necessarily care about gaining the support of conservatives.

“This is ... the administration throwing down a wild card,” said health care consultant Alex Shekhdar, founder of Sycamore Creek Healthcare Advisors. “In order to win in 2020, they need to take into consideration independents and anyone else who thinks drug prices are an issue.”

Joe Antos, a health care expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said it doesn’t matter if the policies Trump is embracing are traditionally Democratic ones.

“Just because Democrats endorsed it in the past, doesn’t mean Trump can’t take ownership and call it his idea. He might not call them Republican ideas, but he’ll call them Donald Trump ideas,” Antos said.

But some GOP senators cautioned against letting Democrats play too much of a role.

After the Finance Committee advanced the drug-pricing bill, Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyLobbying blitz yields wins for airlines, corporations, banks, unions Chances for drug pricing, surprise billing action fade until November Stimulus talks to miss McConnell's Monday deadline MORE (R-Iowa) told reporters that Republicans don’t want Trump negotiating with Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDC argues it is shortchanged by coronavirus relief bill Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — US coronavirus cases hit 100,000 | Trump signs T stimulus package | Trump employs defense powers to force GM to make ventilators | New concerns over virus testing Hillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike MORE (D-Calif.).

A competing bill from House Democrats is far more sweeping than the Senate’s, and includes direct Medicare negotiation on drug prices. 

“It seems to me that the Grassley-Wyden approach is a very moderate approach to what could come out,” Grassley said, referring to the bill backed by him and Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike Senate Democrats vow to keep pushing for more funds for mail-in voting Hillicon Valley: Coronavirus deal includes funds for mail-in voting | Twitter pulled into fight over virus disinformation | State AGs target price gouging | Apple to donate 10M masks MORE (Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee.

But a stalled bill could still work to Trump’s advantage, according to Antos, who said the president doesn’t necessarily need to lower drug prices, he just needs to convince the public he is trying. 

In that sense, Antos argued, Republicans haven’t offered anything better, and they will eventually support whatever the administration does.

“Republicans don’t have any alternative ideas,” Antos said. “Trump has full control of Republicans in Congress, so there’s just not going to be any response other than going along with what comes along.”