Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and most of the House Progressive Caucus are trying to replace Nancy Pelosi’s phony baloney prescription drug price bill with something useful.
There is no downside to this effort, except that Nancy Pelosi might lose some street cred with her lobbyist buddies.
Mitch McConnell won’t allow a vote on any version of this bill in the Senate:
Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have taken the side of the Congressional Progressive Caucus against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a dramatic fight over the details of a drug pricing bill that has been a source of intra-caucus sparring all year.
Pelosi is hoping to move quickly to a floor vote to satisfy a major 2018 campaign pledge that Democrats would work to lower drug prices. Progressives, led by Representatives Pramila Jayapal and Mark Pocan, who are advocating for changes to the legislation, are pushing back, arguing the bill is far too modest and would do little if enacted—which, given the makeup of the Senate, it won’t be.
The Warren-Sanders effort has already gained one new ally: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), whose spokesperson Corbin Trent ripped the bill put together by Pelosi and her staff. “They stripped out everything that looked like progress,” Corbin said.
The bill, HR 3, the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act, will not become law, whether Pelosi’s version passes or whether the stronger elements preferred by the Progressive Caucus are included. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will bury it with the other 400-odd pieces of legislation in his graveyard. But the importance of this House Democratic squabble goes well beyond a single bill. It will indicate whether the 98-member Progressive Caucus, which grew in size this year, is willing and able to fight for policies it believes in. How hard progressives push back against Pelosi will determine whether she will continue to ignore progressives as she pursues her policy framework, or whether she’ll have to respect and include them.
The Rules Committee is expected to vote on the bill Tuesday afternoon, which would then allow it to move to the House floor for a vote. The Progressive Caucus has been surveying members the past several days, encouraging them to vote against the rule for the bill, which would block it from coming to the floor and send it back to the legislative drawing board. A source involved with the whip operation said that so far “the count is excellent,” expressing confidence that enough members of the caucus would stick together. (Before the House votes on a bill, it first votes to approve or reject the “rule” under which it would be considered. Taking down the rule is a way to block the underlying bill from a vote.)
The relative weakness of the bill coming to the House floor makes a mockery of the health care debate unfolding on the presidential campaign trail. While 2020 Democratic hopefuls debate a sweeping, comprehensive reform of the healthcare system, Democrats in the House are having trouble giving authority to the government to negotiate lower prices for more than a mere 25 drugs. The gap between the two debates could hardly be greater, even though Democrats in the House have a free hand policy-wise: After all, the bill has little chance of passing the Senate and becoming law, so it’s largely a messaging exercise.
AS THE PROSPECT documented last Friday, Pelosi and her staff, led by top health policy aide Wendell Primus, have frozen out progressives from deliberations over the Lower Drug Costs Now Act, exercising extreme control over the process. They bypassed legislation written by Representative Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), which, thanks to progressive organizing, had the support of a majority of the caucus. Instead, Pelosi and Primus sought to find a compromise with the Trump White House, only to see Trump savage the bill on Twitter, indicating that it didn’t have his support. Despite that reversal, all the provisions weakened or watered down to gain Trump’s support remain in the bill, leaving open large gaps in who will benefit from the effects.
In addition, the uninsured will not see any benefits from the price negotiations, and will be forced to pay whatever price drug companies can command. Nicole Smith-Holt, the mother of a diabetic who died because he had to go off her insurance at age 26 and could no longer afford insulin, explained to the Prospect last week that “People like my son Alec wouldn’t have benefited. It wouldn’t have saved his life. And a lot of other lives would be at risk too.”
After being shut out of a high-priority legislative action—drug prices were one of the top issues in the 2018 midterms—and having the improvements they did get in whittled down to nothing, the Progressive Caucus, co-chaired by Jayapal and Representative Mark Pocan (D-WI), decided to rebel. On Friday afternoon, they began whipping Progressive Caucus member offices on whether they would be willing to vote against the rule for the Lower Drug Costs Now Act.
A Democratic source confirmed that “a substantial number of progressives” would vote against the rule if certain priorities—restoring the Jayapal amendment, increasing the minimum drugs negotiated, striking the non-interference clause, and making sure the uninsured benefit—were not included in the final text.
Pelosi’s team seemed unmoved by this threat, with an aide telling The Hill, “Representatives Pocan and Jayapal are gravely misreading the situation if they try to stand in the way of the overwhelming hunger for HR3 within the House Democratic Caucus and among progressive Members … The Lower Drug Costs Now Act will pass next week.”
Pelosi appears to be banking on progressives’ past failures to follow through on their threats and defy leadership. But with Sanders and Warren siding with Jayapal and the CPC over the weekend, the progressive caucus may finally have the impetus to block the bill in its current form. The senators’ statements also mean that Pelosi now must contend not only with the left-wing elements of her caucus, but the two presidential candidates commanding a substantial chunk of the primary electorate. On the other hand, passing a messaging bill on drug pricing is a high priority for Democrats up for reelection in tight races, no matter the details, and progressive will be under intense pressure to go along on their behalf.
Once again, we see that Nancy Pelosi sees Republicans as the opposition, and progressives as the enemy.
Until and unless Pelosi gets handed a loss, she will continue to ignore progressive priorities, because, to quote XTC, “People will always be tempted to wipe their feet, On anything with ‘welcome’ written on it.”