Schumer announces deal on prescription drug pricing, a key obstacle to mega-bill

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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., a key holdout, endorsed the agreement.Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer listens during a press conference following the Democrats Policy Luncheon at the U.S. Capitol building on Oct. 26, 2021 in Washington.Samuel Corum / Getty ImagesBy Sahil Kapur, Kyle Stewart, Garrett Haake and Frank Thorp V

WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday that Democrats had reached an agreement on lowering prescription drug costs, particularly for seniors, one of the party’s key disputes in the $1.75 trillion safety net bill.

“I’m pleased to announce that an agreement has been reached to lower prescription drug prices for seniors and families in the Build Back Better legislation,” Schumer said after a Democratic caucus meeting. “Fixing prescription drug pricing has consistently been a top issue for Americans, year after year, including the vast majority of both Democrats and Republicans.”

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., a key holdout, endorsed the agreement.

She “welcomes a new agreement on a historic, transformative Medicare drug negotiation plan,” spokesman John LaBombard said, saying it will “reduce out-of-pocket costs for seniors — ensuring drug prices cannot rise faster than inflation — save taxpayer dollars, and protect innovation.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., called it “a really good deal for patients.” “It cuts drug costs, ends price gouging, and finally, finally allows Medicare to negotiate directly with the drug industry,” he said.

Schumer’s comments came hours after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had predicted the party could resolve its disputes “by the end of the day.”

Pelosi celebrated the agreement: “For a generation, House Democrats have been fighting to deliver real drug price negotiations that will lower costs. With today’s agreement on strong lower drug price provisions for the Build Back Better Act, Democrats have a path forward to make good on this transformational agenda for our seniors.”

She said the deal lowers drug prices for seniors, reduces their out-of-pock et co-pays and establishes a $2,000 out-of-pocket limit for seniors’ expenses in Medicare Part D. The bill would also halt price hikes above inflation, which would impact all Americans, she said.

It’s unclear if House Democrats are fully on board, but the deal represents a major breakthrough. Democrats have other policy obstacles to overcome before the bill is finalized, though, including how to deal with immigration. And some moderates, like Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., want an analysis from the nonpartisan scorekeeper before voting.

“They won’t have one. So they will be faced with a dilemma if it gets to the floor,” Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said, adding that a Congressional Budget Office score could take two weeks.

Yarmuth noted that because Democrats have let previous deadlines slip, “I’ve given up saying I have confidence in this.”

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Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said the House wants an “ironclad agreement” with the Senate before calling a vote in the full chamber.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va, has been another key holdout in the Senate. He has called on the House to vote on the physical infrastructure bill first and hold off on the Build Back Better package. But he said Tuesday he recognizes that isn’t going to happen.

“We’re going to get something done. But I still believe in my heart of hearts, with the unknown that we have right now, that we should have waited,” he said. “We’re not going to wait. That ship has sailed. I understand that.”

Manchin said Democrats agree on major issues like child care, home care and universal pre-K.

“We’re agreeing on so many things that are really good. And we’re working on climate very progressive — I think, in a good way. And we’ll get something done,” he said.

During a press conference on Tuesday at the United Nations Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, President Joe Biden said he thinks Manchin will ultimately be on board.

“I believe that Joe will be there,” he said.

Manchin has objected to putting guaranteed paid family and medical leave in the bill as he pushes for a lower price tag. Democratic leaders have told lawmakers the measure is unlikely to make it into the final package.

“I support paid leave,” he said Tuesday, “but not in this bill in the way it was presented.” He added, “We haven’t been able to do that from the standpoint of the parliamentarian.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a longtime advocate for paid leave who has pushed to include it in the bill, responded to Manchin. “He is not the parliamentarian,” she said, adding that she has talked to him about a compromise.

But asked this morning about outstanding policy points on the negotiating table and if paid leave was one of them, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the Congressional Progressive Caucus chair and another paid leave backer, told NBC News: “No.”

A senior Democratic aide also disputed that the Senate rules were a problem. “The parliamentarian has not limited Democrats’ ability to do paid leave through reconciliation,” the aide said.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., said the bill will include a “full reinstatement” of the state and local tax (or SALT) deduction that is currently limited at $10,000. He didn’t divulge exact policy details, but it would reverse a GOP policy in 2017 in which “moocher states” raised taxes “on the backs of people in my district.”

One source said it would be a five-year reinstatement of SALT, retroactive to 2021. House Ways & Means Chair Richard Neal, D-Mass., declined to confirm or deny that detail but told NBC News, “That’s part of the discussion.”

Manchin gave a statement on Monday raising questions about the bill’s impact on inflation and the national debt, which rattled some Democrats. But others, including the White House, said he has voiced those concerns before and that the legislation was crafted to address them.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., noted the influence of centrists Manchin and Sinema on the legislation.

“This is a bill America does not want and does not need. The ideal solution would be to not pass it,” he told reporters Tuesday. “But if it’s to pass, it’ll be written by Manchin and Sinema.”

House progressives maintain that they will vote for the Build Back Better package as well as the infrastructure bill — which they have held up for weeks — once there’s a deal on social spending.

When asked about Manchin’s contention that the package would be more expansive than Democrats are admitting, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., called on the West Virginia lawmaker to tell colleagues what will get him to a “yes.”

“I don’t know what’s informing his views or where he’s getting his figures from,” Menendez said. “But at some point, Senator Manchin has to decide what he’s for. And has to let the rest of the Senate know what he’s for.”


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