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 steps up GOP charm offensive as impeachment looms 2020 hopes rise for gun control groups after Virginia elections Tensions rise in Senate's legislative 'graveyard' 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 SchumerTrump signs short-term spending bill to avert shutdown Senators urge Trump to suspend Huawei license approvals Tensions rise in Senate's legislative 'graveyard' 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 PelosiOvernight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Deal on defense bill proves elusive | Hill, Holmes offer damaging testimony | Trump vows to block Navy from ousting officer from SEALs On The Money: Trump signs short-term spending bill to avoid shutdown | Pelosi casts doubt on USMCA deal in 2019 | California high court strikes down law targeting Trump tax returns Wasserman Schultz makes bid for House Appropriations Committee gavel 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 GrassleyTrump steps up GOP charm offensive as impeachment looms Congressional authority in a time of Trump executive overreach Overnight Health Care: Crunch time for Congress on surprise medical bills | CDC confirms 47 vaping-related deaths | Massachusetts passes flavored tobacco, vaping products ban MORE (R-Iowa) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenCongressional authority in a time of Trump executive overreach Democrats press Trump officials over drop in ObamaCare signups amid website problems Trump, senators push for drug price disclosures despite setbacks 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 DurbinOvernight Health Care: Crunch time for Congress on surprise medical bills | CDC confirms 47 vaping-related deaths | Massachusetts passes flavored tobacco, vaping products ban Trump, senators push for drug price disclosures despite setbacks Tensions rise in Senate's legislative 'graveyard' 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.”