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Senate fight derails bipartisan drug pricing bills

Senate fight derails bipartisan drug pricing bills
© Aaron Schwartz

A pair of bipartisan measures to lower drug prices were thrown off track Thursday by objections as senators battle over the issue. 

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynHarris to resign from Senate seat on Monday Cruz, Cornyn to attend Biden inauguration McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time MORE (R-Texas) came to the Senate floor preparing to seek unanimous consent to pass a measure with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) which is aimed at lowering drug prices by cracking down on drug companies gaming the patent system to delay cheaper competition. 

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But Cornyn eventually ran out of time. Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerCowboys for Trump founder arrested following Capitol riot Graham calls on Schumer to hold vote to dismiss article of impeachment against Trump Biden and the new Congress must protect Americans from utility shutoffs MORE (D-N.Y.) was preparing to object to his measure, sources say, not wanting to pass one relatively incremental drug pricing measure when negotiations are still ongoing over a larger effort on the topic. 

That did not sit well with Cornyn, though, who blasted Schumer, and plans to try again next week to ask for unanimous consent to pass the bill. 

“He plans to renew the request next week,” a Cornyn spokesman said. “Sen. Schumer will have to decide if he stands with the American people or the special interests fighting this bill.”

Cornyn, who is up for reelection next year, is seeking to get his piece of the drug pricing puzzle through the Senate ahead of other measures still winding their way through the process. 

But Democratic leaders are looking for bigger action than just the Cornyn-Blumenthal bill.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiCowboys for Trump founder arrested following Capitol riot Retired Army general: 'We can't have demonstrators showing up at a state Capitol with damn long guns' Graham calls on Schumer to hold vote to dismiss article of impeachment against Trump MORE (D-Calif.) is pushing a sweeping measure to allow the secretary of Health and Human Services to negotiate drug prices. While that measure faces strong Senate GOP opposition, there is also a larger bipartisan bill in the Senate from Sens. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyImpeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Overnight Health Care: Biden unveils COVID-19 relief plan | Post-holiday surge hits new deadly records | Senate report faults 'broken' system for insulin price hikes MORE (R-Iowa) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenBiden tax-hike proposals face bumpy road ahead Section 230 worked after the insurrection, but not before: How to regulate social media Senate Democrats leery of nixing filibuster MORE (D-Ore.). 

“There's no objection to the substance of it, but I guess Sen. Schumer has been of the mind that nothing gets done unless everything gets done, and I think that's a recipe for nothing getting done,” Cornyn told reporters on Thursday. 

Blumenthal is also pushing for passing his bill through unanimous consent without waiting to deal with the rest of the drug pricing picture at the same time, splitting with Schumer.

“We are very hopeful that our bill will pass with unanimous consent next week, and we’ll be joining Sen. Cornyn in seeking its swift approval,” said a Blumenthal spokeswoman. 

Further adding to the complications, another pair of bipartisan senators are also trying to pass their drug pricing measure alongside the Cornyn-Blumenthal bill, also by unanimous consent. 

That measure, from Grassley and Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinOfficials brace for second Trump impeachment trial Sunday shows - Capital locked down ahead of Biden's inauguration Durbin says he won't whip votes for Trump's second impeachment trial MORE (D-Ill.), would require drug companies to list their prices in TV advertisements. 

But Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyGovernment used Patriot Act to gather website visitor logs in 2019 Appeals court rules NSA's bulk phone data collection illegal Dunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel MORE (R-Pa.) informed his colleagues that he was prepared to object to that bill. 

“Grassley and Durbin will try to work with Toomey over the weekend to see if he will release his hold,” said a Durbin aide. 

Toomey does not object to a recorded roll call vote on the Grassley-Durbin measure, his office said, but does object to quickly moving the measure through unanimous consent when he said it has not been properly vetted. Toomey also thinks showing the list price of a drug in an ad, as opposed to the share that patients would actually pay, is misleading.   

“As currently constructed, the bill singles out the pharmaceutical industry and requires companies to include in advertisements misleading information that could easily deter people from seeking care,” a Toomey spokesman said. “Price transparency is worthy of robust debate to ensure it is done right. Senator Toomey looks forward to working with Senators Durbin and Grassley.”

The pharmaceutical industry, a powerful force in Washington, opposes both bills. The industry had objected even more strongly to an earlier version of Cornyn’s bill, but he worked to make changes to help address the concerns and win over his colleagues who shared the objections. 

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, though, said in a statement that it still opposes the bill, and that it “would fundamentally upend the biopharmaceutical innovation ecosystem.”