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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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Drug firms also have engaged former top aides to Congress's most important Democratic lawmakers, ensuring access to each of the leaders. These lobbyists once worked for such lawmakers as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.); Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (Mont.); House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.); and Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

PhRMA's member companies, which include Merck, Eli Lilly and Pfizer, and their employees have also radically altered their giving patterns to federal candidates. For the past decade, pharmaceuticals contributed two-thirds or more of their campaign cash to Republicans. Last year, their donations split 50-50 in what industry insiders said was a concerted effort to purchase the sympathy of -- and access to -- Democrats while also keeping the allegiance of Republicans.

PhRMA is funneling money into targeted advertising as well. Except on Fridays, when lawmakers tend to be out of town, it is hard to find a Capitol Hill publication that does not contain at least one ad extolling the virtues of the pharmaceutical industry and its favored policies.

Even with all this work in Washington, most of the industry's efforts have been focused outside the capital -- on voters. Its three-year-old program to provide drugs to people who cannot afford them, called the Partnership for Prescription Assistance, has rolled its buses and accompanying media blitz into 50 states and 2,000 cities. The program, fronted by the talk-show host Montel Williams, has provided no-cost or low-cost drugs to nearly 5 million people.

"We're doing it because it's the right thing to do," said Ken Johnson, a PhRMA senior vice president. "It's also the smart thing to do. We want to be loved, too." He reported that a PhRMA bus has visited every congressional district and, as a result, the drug industry has seen "a significant uptick of support among working-class Democrats."

PhRMA's promotional machine recently started to churn out a half-hour television show called "Sharing Miracles," which the group pays to air on Sunday mornings in 25 major markets, including the Washington area. The program has featured first-person stories about life-saving treatments by former White House Press Secretary Tony Snow and other celebrities.

In another approach to Democrats, the industry has joined forces with organized labor. PhRMA bankrolls the Pharmaceutical Industry Labor-Management Association, a Virginia group that works to find issues on which unions and drug companies can agree. For instance, the sides collaborated on the campaign last year to pass the children's health-program expansion. In the end, President Bush blocked the bill with vetoes.

Tauzin said PhRMA is forming alliances with every patients' group it can find, including the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, Mental Health America and even the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (which counsels against illegal drug use). Those lobbies have a more positive reputation among lawmakers than the drug industry does.

"We're finding ways," Tauzin concluded, "to be good friends."

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