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Spanberger joins Biden in her district to talk prescription drug costs

President Biden shakes hands with Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) after arriving on Marine One at Culpeper Regional Airport in Brandy Station, Va., on Feb. 10. (Alex Brandon/AP)
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CULPEPER, Va. — Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) appeared with President Biden in her district Thursday to speak with him about federal action to lower the cost of prescription drugs, part of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda and one of the congresswoman’s foremost priorities as she heads into a heated reelection campaign.

The president has been aiming to travel more to highlight policy goals or achievements important to voters after major setbacks on Democrats’ agenda in the Senate — including the sputtering of the Build Back Better Act. Democrats’ ability to revive certain facets of that agenda, including on prescription drugs, could be crucial heading into the midterms, particularly for vulnerable Democrats like Spanberger.

The highly competitive nature of her race in Virginia’s 7th District makes Biden’s decision to visit her region notable, even as her Republican opponents are seizing on Biden’s dropping approval rating to target Spanberger for supporting the president’s spending proposals.

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But Spanberger said in an interview ahead of Biden’s visit that the opportunity for constituents to bring their personal experiences with high health-care costs directly to the president was one she could not pass up. She joined the president at Germanna Community College’s Daniel Technology Center for the event, which was not related to her campaign.

“I think I have a duty to make sure that, if I can give my constituents an opportunity to tell their stories directly to the president of the United States, I’m going to take it,” she said.

Joining Biden in front of a “Build Back Better” banner, Spanberger introduced the president alongside two of her constituents, Shannon Davis and Davis’s 12-year-old son, Joshua, who like his father has Type 1 diabetes and needs daily access to insulin, a major regular expense for the family.

“Shannon, you should have peace of mind knowing that when Joshua grows up and leaves your health-care plan, he’ll be able to choose a job without having to make a choice about which one has particular health-care coverage,” Biden said, applauding the preteen for sharing his story and saying the federal government should be able to cap insulin prices.

“In my Build Back Better legislation, that with Abigail’s leadership passed the House of Representatives, we can do that. Now we just have to get it through the United States Senate,” Biden said, adding perhaps optimistically: “And we’re close. … We will hold drug companies accountable for their absurd price increases.”

During a private meeting with Biden on the way to the event, Spanberger told the president that Congress should take whatever avenue necessary to pass legislation lowering prescription drug costs, a spokesman for Spanberger said. He said they also discussed other items, including the need to stop fentanyl trafficking at the border and Spanberger’s legislation seeking to triple federal funding for the COPS program, a federal grant program for local police departments.

In an interview, Spanberger said she would support taking an “all-of-the-above” approach to pushing for legislation to lower the cost of prescription drugs. She said she would support either stand-alone legislation or taking another crack at including it in a broader reconciliation package. The Lower Drug Costs Now Act, which would have given Medicare the power to negotiate drug prices, passed the House in 2019 but died in the Senate.

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Spanberger’s visit with Biden was, she said, the first time she has spoken directly with him since she somewhat famously — at least on Capitol Hill — told the New York Times that “nobody elected him to be F.D.R.; they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos.”

Soon she got a call from the president, ribbing her: “Hello, Abigail, it’s President Roosevelt.”

At the time, Democrats were reeling from a stunning defeat in Virginia’s gubernatorial election amid Democratic infighting in Washington over Biden’s sweeping social-spending and tax plan, which some argued could have contributed to a sour environment for Democrats in Virginia.

Spanberger in particular had been critical of both her party’s messaging and negotiating tactics on the Build Back Better agenda, believing some demanded more than they could get, and that there was too much focus on the enormous top-line spending figure rather than specific programs that resonated with voters.

“There were people who left the negotiating table early when there was success to be had for the American people,” whether on lowering prescription drug prices or on fighting climate change, she said Wednesday. Negotiations broke down after Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said he would not vote for the $2 trillion package.

On Thursday, Biden repeatedly highlighted Spanberger’s enthusiasm on the prescription drug pricing issue — which she had been vocal about during Build Back Better negotiations — and said the Senate could use some of it as negotiations there remain stalled.

“Lawmakers have spent a lot of time talking about lowering drug costs, and we know the American people are behind this push, but we need to buck up and get it done,” Spanberger told the audience at Germanna Community College on Thursday.

Republicans have made Spanberger’s vote on the Build Back Better Act — and other major packages — part of their regular attack messaging, and Thursday’s visit with Biden only offered them more fodder.

“Abigail Spanberger will stand with Joe Biden because she supports his failed agenda that is fueling inflation, ignoring violent crime and stripping Virginians of their parental rights,” Camille Gallo, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement Wednesday about the visit.

“We knew Spanberger was worried, but bringing Biden already?” Yesli Vega, a Prince William County board supervisor running in the 7th District Republican primary, said on Twitter. “Only a few months ago, Terry McAuliffe brought Joe Biden to our Commonwealth and Virginians overwhelmingly rejected them both.”

Mark J. Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said that from Republicans’ perspective, Spanberger’s appearance with Biden “looks like a political gift” given the difficult national environment for Democrats. But a lot could change before November, he said.

“We don’t know how it will look in November,” he said. “Oftentimes members of Congress in competitive districts keep their distance from an unpopular president in their own party in the midst of a reelection campaign. So there is some risk for Spanberger, especially if the president’s popularity continues to remain low or plummets further.”

On the other hand, Rozell said, if Democrats can unite behind key priorities such as lowering the cost of prescription drugs by November, the attacks targeting Spanberger for joining Biden may ring hollow, and her appearance with him may instead end up as an asset. “There has to be some policy achievement behind the good-looking pictures,” Rozell said.

In an interview, Spanberger pushed back on some of the recent Republican attacks and ads targeting her votes on her party’s major spending packages; one by Americans for Prosperity rolled out last week and attacked her for what it called “reckless spending,” including on the American Rescue Plan. Bills like the American Rescue Plan, Spanberger said, have aided small businesses, expanded broadband access and would allow pay raises for police officers, which Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) proposed last month.

“I am actually taking action to save small businesses, to help our localities, and to try and get a handle on inflation,” she said. “Any of the individuals who are critiquing or just talking about the problem, I would urge them to perhaps start giving solutions.”

Spanberger’s reelection campaign is one of the most closely watched in Virginia, if not nationally, as Democrats seek to defend their thin majority in the House. Republicans have been targeting her seat ever since she flipped the 7th District blue in 2018. But redistricting drastically reshaped the district and made it bluer, moving it out of the Richmond suburbs — including Henrico, where Spanberger lives — and taking it farther north, including parts of Prince William County.

While Spanberger defeated her Republican challenger Nick Freitas by less than two percentage points in 2020 — similar to Biden’s margin — Biden would have won the new district by roughly seven points.

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