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McConnell, Grassley at odds over Trump-backed drug bill

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are increasingly at odds over a bipartisan measure to lower drug prices backed by President Trump.

McConnell has said privately that he thinks Grassley’s bill is bad policy, according to sources who heard his comments.

Grassley, meanwhile, is trying to increase pressure on McConnell to support his bill, arguing lowering drug prices will help vulnerable Republicans at the ballot box.

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“Eventually, McConnell’s going to realize that this is very important for Republicans maintaining control of the Senate,” Grassley told reporters on Wednesday.

Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, struck a deal with Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the panel’s top Democrat, in July on a bipartisan measure to lower drug prices. The legislation earned the backing of Trump, who has said lowering drug prices is a top priority for his administration.

But the measure has since stalled, with no clear path forward on legislation both Trump and Democrats want to get across the finish line.

In addition to McConnell’s concerns, other GOP senators have objections as well, meaning there is no groundswell of pressure on the leader to hold a floor vote. When the measure came up for a vote in the Finance Committee over the summer, nine Republicans voted against it, compared with just six who backed it.

McConnell is loathe to hold votes on measures that could divide Republicans.

Grassley said he didn’t expect McConnell to have held a vote by now — Grassley is still building support for the legislation — but said he is banking on the White House to help win over Republican senators.

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“The White House, everything they’ve been doing, and I recently had a conversation with them to get an update, they’re doing exactly the right thing,” Grassley said.

Speaking at a closed-door breakfast hosted by the National Republican Senatorial Committee last month, Grassley made clear that he had a disagreement with McConnell on the drug pricing bill and predicted that more GOP senators would sign on early next year, especially those up for reelection, according to a source who was in attendance.

However, many Republican senators object to a key provision in the bill that would require drug companies pay money back to Medicare if their prices rise faster than the rate of inflation. They argue that constitutes a “price control” that violates traditional GOP free-market thinking.

Another key component of the bill, one that’s less controversial, would cap seniors’ out-of-pocket costs for Medicare drugs.

“I voted against it, so obviously I’m not displeased with the lack of progress,” said Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who voted against the measure in the Finance Committee in July, while noting it is possible something else could be worked out to lower drug prices.

Grassley has been making his pitch to GOP colleagues on the Senate floor and in other one-on-one conversations. But he has yet to see an outpouring of support from Republicans.

“We’ve had a few conversations about it on the Senate floor, but I’ve not reached any conclusion on it,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.).

Both Moran and Scott said they had not been pressured by the White House to back the measure.

“The White House has not been calling me about that,” Scott said.

Michael Zona, a Grassley spokesman, said support is growing as senators learn more about the bill and “we expect to announce more Republican supporters of the legislation in the coming days.” Grassley and Wyden are working to release an updated version of their bill soon as well, though the core of the measure is not expected to change.

“Grassley-Wyden is a genuine bipartisan agreement to lower prescription drug prices that the White House is fully behind,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere, adding that administration officials “continue to work with Senators and House members to build support and move the bill forward.”

Asked about the bill and Grassley’s comments, a McConnell spokesman referred back to the leader’s comments in September, when he told Politico that the path forward on drug pricing is still “under discussion” and the Senate is “looking at doing something on drug pricing.”

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Wyden, from the Democratic side, said the clock is ticking before the calendar turns to an election year, when passing major legislation becomes significantly harder.

“There’s something like 18-20 days for the Republican leader to make a decision,” Wyden said in an interview. “Is he for the consumer who feels like they’re getting mugged at the pharmacy counter, or is he for Big Pharma?”

Wyden said Grassley is “working it very hard.”

“We talk about it regularly,” Wyden said. “Our staffs talk every day. We think that this is an opportunity to do what everybody says they want to do, which was be bipartisan and actually hold costs down.”

Drug pricing measures could be attached to a government funding bill that faces a Dec. 20 deadline to avoid a shutdown, but objections from GOP senators make it unlikely the Grassley-Wyden bill will be tacked onto must-pass legislation.

The House is going to vote next week on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) even more sweeping bill to lower drug prices, which is likely to pass on a largely party line vote. Grassley is trying to pitch his measure as the “moderate” alternative to Pelosi’s.

But for many Republican senators, that pitch has not been effective.

“I do think we have an opportunity to do something,” Scott said. “We just haven’t figured out what it is.”

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