Top Democrat dropping support for previously bipartisan Senate drug pricing effort

Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, will not co-sponsor an updated version of what had been a bipartisan measure to lower drug prices, as his partnership with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on the issue appeared to fall apart on Monday.

Wyden last year introduced a bipartisan bill to lower drug prices that he negotiated with Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Grassley is now preparing to introduce an updated version of the bill with relatively minor changes, but Wyden is dropping off as a co-sponsor. 

The move set off a round of finger-pointing on Monday, as the already long odds for a bipartisan breakthrough on drug prices this year appeared to get even longer. 

Grassley said Democrats, led by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), were walking away from the negotiations to preserve drug pricing as a campaign issue, while Wyden said Republicans were never really at the table to begin with given that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) does not support the bill. 

“Unfortunately, over the past couple of months, Democrats have left the negotiating table,” Grassley wrote in a fiery Wall Street Journal op-ed on Monday. “Democratic colleagues tell me this was a decision made by their party’s leadership. I can only assume the Democratic Party would rather use the issue of drug prices as a political hammer in November’s election than work to address it now.” 

Wyden countered in a statement after the op-ed was published by pointing to McConnell. 

“Democrats have not walked away from the table on drug pricing — Republicans never showed up in the first place,” Wyden said. 

Wyden indicated there was no point in him joining the effort and continuing to lend it bipartisan credibility when McConnell had no interest in bringing the bill up for a vote.  

“Unfortunately, McConnell and many other Senate Republicans are too afraid of Big Pharma to join our effort, so there is no reason to expect our bill will receive a vote on the Senate floor,” Wyden said. “Senate Democrats are not interested in aiding Republicans as they play political games and pretend to support lowering prescription drug prices.”

Wyden noted, though, that he still supports the bill from a policy perspective. 

“I stand by that effort and maintain these policies are right on the merits,” he said. 

Indeed, Grassley acknowledged in his op-ed that many of his Republican colleagues do not support the bill. 

“Republicans who sit on their hands are throwing the taxpayers we claim to champion under the bus,” he wrote. 

The original Grassley-Wyden bill had a range of measures to lower drug prices, including capping seniors’ out-of-pocket drug costs in Medicare. More controversially, it included an idea from Wyden to limit Medicare drug price increases to the rate of inflation. That provision led many Senate Republicans to object to the bill as including “price controls.”

Notably, the Grassley-Wyden bill did not include Democrats’ main priority on the issue: allowing Medicare to negotiate prices. 

House Democrats passed a bill to do that in December, and many in the party are championing that effort as superior.  

Grassley, though, argued that his bill is a middle ground and most Republicans would never support Medicare negotiation. 

The White House has offered support for the Grassley bill, but has not made a sustained push to win over congressional Republicans on it. 

Grassley called for more support from President Trump in his op-ed.

“The president should use his bully pulpit and demand lower drug prices in the next coronavirus bill,” Grassley wrote. 

Wyden on Monday called for a “bipartisan, bicameral discussion” on the path forward on drug prices.

Grassley, Wyden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) met last month to discuss the path forward on drug prices, according to a source familiar with the meeting. But there had been little progress since then. In the meeting, Pelosi reiterated the Democratic priority of allowing drug price negotiation, the source said. 

Pelosi noted last week at her weekly press conference that Trump during his campaign had supported drug price negotiation, before backing off as president. 

“The president said during the campaign he was going to, ‘Negotiate like crazy,’ ” she said.  “Crazy, that is a good description of his actions throughout. But, ‘negotiate like crazy’ apparently means not negotiate at all. That is the only way you are going to get the prices — the lowered prices.”

Tags Chuck Grassley Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Drug prices Medicare Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Ron Wyden

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