Drug plan failure, signaling thorny path for Democrats’ $ 3.5 trillion bill

WASHINGTON – A Democratic plan to cut prescription drug prices as part of the party’s $ 3.5 trillion social policy program failed Wednesday before a House committee after moderates refused to back it, stressing internal divisions which could complicate the implementation of the legislation.

Three Democrats – Reps Scott Peters of California, Kurt Schrader of Oregon and Kathleen Rice of New York – joined Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to vote against the drug proposal, which the pharmaceutical industry opposes fiercely. Their opposition resulted in a tie that effectively prevented the plan from coming out of this panel.

An identical provision subsequently authorized the House Ways and Means Committee, which also has jurisdiction over the measurement of drug prices, a crucial source of revenue to fund the far-reaching bill.

But the defeat reflected the many disputes between Democrats that threaten to derail or curtail their domestic policy plan. And it illustrated the challenges that President Nancy Pelosi of California and other party leaders face in uniting their weak majorities around legislation that represents the best chance for President Biden to accomplish key elements of his platform. .

“The President agrees with President Pelosi that in order to build an economy that benefits the middle class and working families – not just those at the top – it is essential for us to allow Medicare to negotiate directly for lower drug prices. “White House spokesman Andrew Bates said.

The setback came a day when Mr. Biden was separately meeting with two Democratic refractory to the social policy package, Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, both of whom balked at the price of the legislation.

The unit of measurement, dubbed the “Build Back Better Act”, is crucial given that Republicans are unanimously opposed to it. Democrats plan to pass the plan through a special budget process known as reconciliation, which shields it from obstruction and allows it to pass a simple majority vote. But given their slim majority, Democrats can’t afford a single 50-50 defection to the Senate and can spare as little as three votes in the House.

The committee’s work formally wrapped up in the House on Wednesday, as the Ways and Means Committee had a final round of voting before advancing the prescription drug provision, a series of tax increases for patients. wealthy and businesses and tax breaks for families. Only one Democrat, Representative Stephanie Murphy of Florida, joined Republicans in voting against the measure.

“I remain optimistic that the comprehensive reconciliation agenda will be properly targeted and fiscally responsible – paid for by tax provisions that promote fairness but do not hurt working families,” Murphy said in a statement after the vote. . “Every moment we spend debating provisions that will never become law is a moment wasted and will delay the help the American people so badly need.”

The final passage is far from guaranteed. Democrats in both chambers need to reconcile competing plans to fund the package and divisions over how to structure key components, most likely before the legislation reaches the House floor. It is possible that additional provisions will be added, including pressure from some lawmakers to tackle the cap on the deduction for national and local taxes.

Ms Pelosi has pledged to iron out differences with the Senate before holding a floor vote, and the supply of drugs remains one of the thorniest issues for leaders to resolve. While the Ways and Means Committee vote has kept it in the package for now, defections from the Energy and Trade panel have signaled that it would most likely need to change to make the entire bill becomes law.

“There is no excuse that every Democrat does not support him,” Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who is the chairman of the budget committee, said in a statement. “Now is the time for Congress to show courage and stand up to the greed of the pharmaceutical industry. The American people will not accept surrender.

The drug pricing provision is a top political priority for leaders in Congress and the White House. High drug prices are a major problem for consumers and a major concern for voters. The three holdouts voted for almost identical legislation when it was passed in the House in 2019.

“Polls consistently show immense bipartisan support for Democratic drug price negotiation legislation,” Pelosi spokeswoman Henry Connelly said in a statement after the vote. “Lowering drug costs is a top priority for the American people and will remain a cornerstone of the Build Back Better Act as work continues between the House, Senate and White House on the final bill. “

At Wednesday’s hearing, Representative Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey urged his colleagues to vote to move the bill forward, promising “that your voices will be heard either with a seat at the table or through me. “.

The moderates did not budge, although they refrained from forcing a vote on their own drug price alternative. Mr Schrader said he hoped “this is really the start of a conversation about drug pricing policy that can actually be enacted.”

The House’s provision would set aggressive price caps for certain prescription drugs, tying the price of government drugs to those paid in other countries. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the policy would lower the prices of some drugs by more than half. Under the legislation, this lower cost would be made available to other drug buyers in the country, which would also lower prices for employers and individual health plans. A 2019 estimate of similar legislation found it would save the federal government more than $ 450 billion over a decade.

The pharmaceutical industry strongly opposes such policies, which could drastically reduce its revenues. Just hours before the vote, PhRMA, the industry trade group, announced a seven-figure TV ad buy designed to avoid price regulation. A large group of business leaders in the industry also issued an open letter opposing the bill. It appeared as a paid ad on Wednesday in the Washington Post, Politico and The Hill.

“These concerns have been known for months, but they have been ignored by House leaders,” said Debra DeShong, the group’s executive vice president for public affairs. “This should be a strong signal to House leadership that there is broad support to reduce costs for patients without sacrificing access to new remedies and treatments.”

In the Senate, more and more divisions are preparing on the bill of social policy. Ms. Sinema arrived at the White House early Wednesday morning to meet with Mr Biden over his concerns over the new legislation, while Mr Manchin attended a separate meeting later in the day.

“Today’s meeting has been productive and Kyrsten continues to work in good faith with his colleagues and President Biden as this legislation evolves,” said John LaBombard, spokesperson for Ms. Sinema, in a statement.

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