Democrats announced a deal Tuesday to reduce sky-high prescription drug prices for millions of Americans, resolving a key dispute in negotiations over a massive social safety net expansion stalled amid infighting in Congress.
The agreement empowers the government to negotiate the cost of certain prescription medications from 2023 and allows for a rebate on drugs whose prices rise faster than inflation.
"Fixing prescription drug pricing has consistently been a top issue for Americans year after year, including the vast majority of both Democrats and Republicans who want to see a change because they simply cannot afford their medications," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.
The deal would cap patients' out-of-pocket spending at $2,000 per year, with government price negotiations beginning with 10 drugs.
Schumer said it would also end price gouging, with insulin dropping from $600 to $35 a month.
Crucially, the agreement puts Democrats a step closer to a vote on the $1.75 trillion social welfare spending plan that is a key pillar of President Joe Biden's legislative agenda, alongside a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has indicated that Democrats could resolve all outstanding issues on the Build Back Better bill by the end of the day, clearing the way for a House vote this week.
Several other policy obstacles remain on the negotiating table, however, from immigration to child care and taxation.
'Huge step forward'
"In years past, passing any one of these items would have been considered a huge step forward for the country — now we are working to get them all done at once and we will continue making progress," Schumer told Senate colleagues.
The breakthrough will be taken as a welcome salve in a bruising start to the week for Democrats contending with a looming government funding and debt ceiling crisis and a too-close-to-call gubernatorial election in Virginia that could weigh heavily on next year's midterm elections.
Senate moderate Joe Manchin applied a handbrake on the legislative timetable on Monday, saying there was still work to be done on an outline of Build Back Better that Biden released last week.
Crucially, Manchin made clear that he no problem with tanking the bill — regardless of whether it passes the House — if congressional leaders and the White House don't move further towards the center.
The West Virginian coal tycoon voiced frustration with progressives holding the infrastructure package hostage in hopes he'll commit to voting for Build Back Better.
He has been consulting with experts at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton business school, and says the $1.75 trillion package was financed by "shell games," with the real cost likely closer to $3.9 trillion.
The White House puts the price of day care subsidies and universal preschool at $400 billion, for example, while Penn Wharton estimates it at $700 billion over 10 years.
Pouring kerosine on the simmering feud, progressive congresswoman Cori Bush called Manchin's opposition to Build Back Better "anti-Black, anti-child, anti-woman and anti-immigrant."
Adding to the pessimism over prospects a quick resolution, a group of middle-of-the-road Democrats say they are ready to block the bill without an analysis from the congressional budget office of the economic impacts.
That would rule out a vote this week, and probably next week, according to House Democratic leadership.