Vulnerable Republicans balk at Trump-backed drug pricing bill

Vulnerable GOP senators up for reelection next year are giving the cold shoulder to a bipartisan bill aimed at lowering drug prices.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyTrump administration to impose tariffs on French products in response to digital tax Big Ten moves to conference-only model for all fall sports Republicans considering an outdoor stadium for Florida convention: report MORE (R-Iowa) is pushing for passage of his measure with Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenTrump administration to impose tariffs on French products in response to digital tax Mnuchin: Next stimulus bill must cap jobless benefits at 100 percent of previous income Congress must act now to fix a Social Security COVID-19 glitch and expand, not cut, benefits MORE (D-Ore.) to lower drug prices, something seen as a rare area for possible bipartisan agreement this year.

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Grassley is explicitly and publicly making the case to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCongress pulls punches on Russian bounties firestorm Congress under pressure to provide billions for school openings Hillicon Valley: Facebook considers political ad ban | Senators raise concerns over civil rights audit | Amazon reverses on telling workers to delete TikTok MORE (R-Ky.) that his bill would help vulnerable Republicans. However, many of those incumbents have declined to support the Grassley-Wyden bill.

GOP Sens. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisDemocrats seek to tie GOP candidates to Trump, DeVos Senate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad MORE (N.C.), Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallySenate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick Koch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad MORE (Ariz.), Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerDemocrats seek to tie GOP candidates to Trump, DeVos Senate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick Finger-pointing, gridlock spark frustration in Senate MORE (Colo.) and Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstDemocrats seek to tie GOP candidates to Trump, DeVos Ernst: Renaming Confederate bases is the 'right thing to do' despite 'heck' from GOP GOP senators voice confidence over uphill Senate battle MORE (Iowa), who all face potentially tough races next year, have either expressed concerns about the legislation or declined to back it. Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsMore Republicans should support crisis aid for the Postal Service GOP senators voice confidence over uphill Senate battle Republicans considering an outdoor stadium for Florida convention: report MORE (Maine) is the lone vulnerable Republican to endorse the measure.

Senators who haven't supported the bill are highlighting the bind they face. On the one hand, the bill has the support of President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavis: Supreme Court decision is bad news for Trump, good news for Vance Meadows trying to root out suspected White House leakers by feeding them info: Axios Pressley hits DeVos over reopening schools: 'I wouldn't trust you to care for a house plant let alone my child' MORE, and lowering drug prices is a popular issue with voters. But on the other hand, supporting the bill breaks with GOP orthodoxy and invites a backlash from both conservatives and the pharmaceutical industry.

The most controversial provision for Republicans requires drug companies to pay money back to Medicare if their prices rise faster than inflation, something some Republicans view as too close to a “price control.”

Tillis told The Hill that he has “concerns” with the bill, saying that he wants to focus on middlemen known as pharmacy benefit managers and other parts of the supply chain, not just pharmaceutical companies themselves to lower drug prices.

“I think we need to make progress on [the bill],” Tillis said, while adding he has not made a final decision on how he would vote if the bill came to the floor.

McSally has also expressed concerns, declining to say if she would support the bill in an interview with The Arizona Republic in August.

"There are a lot of really good things in that legislation and we're making sure there's not any unintended consequences,” she said. “But we appreciate the intent. We definitely support the intent."

A McSally aide said Friday that the senator “has been in close discussions” with Grassley but did not give a firm position on the measure either way.

Gardner’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether he supports the bill.

Ernst, Grassley’s fellow Iowan, has also so far declined to endorse the bill.

“Senator Grassley and Senator Ernst share the same goal of lowering the cost of prescription drugs for their fellow Iowans, and on this particular bill, Senator Ernst generally supports the intent of the package and is still reviewing the specifics of the proposal,” said Ernst spokeswoman Kelsi Daniell.

The wavering from GOP senators comes despite support from Trump, who frequently rails against high drug prices.

“I like Sen. Grassley’s drug pricing bill very much,” Trump tweeted last month.

Lowering drug prices is also a major issue for voters. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in September found that 70 percent of the public said lowering drug prices should be a “top priority.”

But conservative groups have attacked the bill for its limits on price increases in Medicare, and FreedomWorks called the idea “price controls” in July.

“We cannot afford to put our nation on the slippery slope towards socialized medicine,” the group’s president, Adam Brandon, said at the time.

The pharmaceutical industry — a powerful force in Washington and a major source of campaign contributions — is also staunchly opposed to the bill.

Some vulnerable Republican senators are pointing to smaller, less controversial bills to show their commitment to lowering drug prices.

Ernst and McSally, for example, point to their support for the Creates Act, a smaller bipartisan measure aimed at lowering drug prices by cracking down on delay tactics that drug companies use to fend off competition from cheaper generic drugs.

The pharmaceutical industry also supports that measure, helping make it less controversial than the Grassley-Wyden bill.

Grassley last month publicly called on McConnell to support his bill, arguing that it would help Republicans keep control of the Senate in next year’s elections.

He's pitched his bill to Republicans as the “moderate” alternative to Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBattle over reopening schools heats up Pelosi: Trump wearing a mask is 'an admission' that it can stop spread of coronavirus Sunday shows - Spotlight shifts to reopening schools MORE’s (D-Calif.) drug pricing measure in the House, which is far more sweeping but has at least some chance of receiving Trump's support given his focus on drug costs.

"There's a great deal of disgust with the rapidly increasing price of drugs, and every Republican up for election's going to have to have a place to land," Grassley told reporters in September.

"And this is the place to land, because they're surely not going to land with what Pelosi's [doing]," he continued. "If McConnell wants to keep the Republican majority, then this drug pricing bill is part of that plan."

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Grassley spokesman Michael Zona said Friday that support is growing and more Republican supporters will be announced “in the coming days.”

Asked about the path forward for Grassley’s bill and whether it would get a vote, McConnell’s office referred back to the majority leader’s comments to Politico last month, when he said the path forward is still “under discussion” and the Senate is still “looking at doing something on drug pricing.”

However, given the bill's ability to divide McConnell's caucus, he could be hesitant to give it a vote.

Many lobbyists expect that Grassley’s bill will not come up for a vote as a standalone measure and that its only chance is to have sections included in a larger package, such as a government funding deal. However, that could be a more likely scenario for smaller measures such as the Creates Act.

With the election ahead, both sides are already throwing jabs over the issue.

“Voters are worried about prescription drugs getting more expensive, but many Republican incumbents on the ballot haven't taken meaningful steps to bring down prices and are now dodging questions about legislation,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Stewart Boss.

Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, countered that Republicans “are firmly committed to addressing the rising cost of prescription drugs through a variety of different measures.”

“These attacks from Democrats are nothing more than an effort to distract voters from their party’s embrace of plans that would eliminate employer-based health care coverage,” he added.