Prescription Drug Price Bill Inches Toward Passage

CONGRESS IS MOVING, SLOWLY, TOWARD PASSING LEGISLATION that would allow Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical manufacturers over the price it pays for the ten most popular drugs in the U.S. As we have predicted for weeks, this could be a rare victory for the beleaguered Biden Administration — and an equally rare defeat for Big Pharma.

THE TIMING IS TRICKY, complicated by a Covid outbreak that has sidelined two key Senators, Joe Manchin and Lisa Murkowski. A tie vote in the 50-50 Senate would set the stage for employing the budget reconciliation process, waiving a filibuster that could kill the bill — once the Senate parliamentarian approves that complicated tactic.

THE HOUSE IS SCHEDULED to leave town at the end of this week, while the Senate may not recess until the end of next week. It’s possible that debate on this bill — and a $52 billion package aimed at competing with China and boosting semiconductor chipmakers — could drag on with no final resolution until after the August break, but passage of both measures increasingly looks like a question of when, not whether.

THIS DRUG BILL ALSO would provide a two-year extension of enhanced Obamacare subsidies that would prevent health insurance premiums from rising significantly for many people — another provision that polls very well.

THE POLITICAL STAKES are high, as President Biden seeks any option he can find to drive down inflation. Reducing the cost of prescription drugs is a clear winner for the Democrats, polls show. The drug industry’s claim that the bill would stifle innovation has not won much traction.

IF BIDEN CAN WIN passage of this bill, as gasoline prices head back to about $4 per gallon, the Democrats could keep alive their hopes to retain the Senate this November. The House still appears likely to flip back to the Republicans.

THE OTHER HIGH-VISIBILITY BILL NEARING PASSAGE is more controversial — subsidies for Intel and other highly profitable chip makers have generated strong opposition on the left and right, where there’s grumbling over “corporate welfare.” But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has been able to keep a coalition together for this bill; a far more generous House package will have to be trimmed back.

SOME DEMOCRATS THINK passage of these two measures — plus codification of same-sex marriage — will be a sign that Biden may be breaking out of his lengthy slump. It’s too early to make that call, but the prospect of lower drug prices finally gives the president an issue to brag about.

Related: Looking for a Signal From Jerome Powell

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