Drug Firms Woo Democrats, Helping Defeat Their Bills

"We just have more friends than we used to have" now that Democrats rule Congress, says Billy Tauzin, head of the main drug industry trade group. (By Ray Lustig -- The Washington Post)
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By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The pharmaceutical industry, long an ally of Republicans, has increasingly worked itself into the good graces of the Democratic Party and by doing so has helped block the Democrats' top prescription-drug initiatives.

In the year since they took over on Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders have been unable to pass either a bill allowing reimportation of drugs from Canada or a measure requiring negotiation of drug prices under Medicare. Neither is likely to reach the president's desk this year. Lawmakers on both sides of these issues say the primary reason is the influence, now redirected, of the drug lobby.

Drug companies have gone on a hiring binge, retaining Democratic lobbyists in dozens of major firms. This strategy, which K Streeters call "clogging the system," prevents adversaries from hiring anyone from those consultancies.

The drug lobby has also wooed congressional Democrats by plowing millions of dollars into helping with another Democratic goal: expansion of the children's health program. In a detente with its traditional foes, the drug industry joined a group that included AARP and Families USA to buy about $7 million in ads backing the expansion of the program, under which states receive federal money to provide health insurance to families with children.

The industry's main lobby, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, known as PhRMA, paid for most of the group's budget. "They have all the money," explained John Rother, policy director of AARP, which is no slouch when it comes to spending money on lobbying. "They're the ones who can write the big checks."

In years past, when pharmaceuticals leaned heavily Republican, Democrats did not have much reason to cut them a break or side with them on policy. Democrats won control of Congress in 2006 in part by accusing Republicans of being too close to drug companies and other "special interests." But now that pharmaceutical money is available to both parties, the drug companies have reason to hope for better treatment.

The Democratic takeover of Congress means "we just have more friends than we used to have," said PhRMA President W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, a former Republican congressman from Louisiana. "We're trying to find more."

The industry worked closely with the previous Republican-controlled Congress to shape a Medicare prescription-drug program that included a provision barring the government from negotiating with drug companies for lower prices. Democratic leaders have wanted to require such negotiation but were stopped initially by GOP resistance and an analysis by federal auditors that found that the impact of negotiation on prices would be small. Ultimately, the measure did not resurface because rank-and-file Democrats in Congress were not eager to revisit it.

Democrats had similar reservations about a bill that would legalize reimportation of lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada and other countries. Republican opposition and public fear about imports of all sorts, from food to toys, blocked the measure at first. Then, Democratic reluctance about pursuing the matter ended the debate.

Most Democratic leaders are still eager to push this legislation, which the U.S. pharmaceutical lobby opposes. "They've orchestrated these coalitions and other efforts to improve their public image, but I still get a lot complaints from people that the price of drugs is too high," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Still, representatives of both the political left and right said the drug lobby's influence will make that hard. "They are an extremely powerful, effective lobby," said Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, a conservative Republican who tried and failed to beat the drug lobby on the reimportation issue. Ron Pollack, executive director of the liberal Families USA agreed: "They are the most effective lobby on Capitol Hill right now."

PhRMA boosted its spending on lobbying last year by 25 percent, to more than $22 million. The increase made the group the second-largest purchaser of lobbying services -- which includes both lobbyists and issue advertising -- after only the capital's perennial top spender, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, according to CQ MoneyLine, which tracks money in politics.

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