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 CornynTrump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn On The Money: Trump, China announce 'Phase One' trade deal | Supreme Court takes up fight over Trump financial records | House panel schedules hearing, vote on new NAFTA deal On The Money: Lawmakers strike spending deal | US, China reach limited trade deal ahead of tariff deadline | Lighthizer fails to quell GOP angst over new NAFTA 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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTurf war derails bipartisan push on surprise medical bills Senate confirms Trump's nominee to lead FDA CEO group pushes Trump, Congress on paid family, medical leave 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 PelosiUSMCA is nice but no model Anti-impeachment Democrat poised to switch parties Grassley urges White House to help farmers in year-end tax talks 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 GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley urges White House to help farmers in year-end tax talks The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday MORE (R-Iowa) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday Senators zero in on shadowy court at center of IG report Trump administration approves Medicaid work requirements in South Carolina 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 DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSunday Talk Shows: Lawmakers look ahead to House vote on articles of impeachment, Senate trial Lawmakers introduce bill taxing e-cigarettes to pay for anti-vaping campaigns Senators zero in on shadowy court at center of IG report MORE (D-Ill.), would require drug companies to list their prices in TV advertisements. 

But 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.) 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.”