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

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., a key holdout, endorsed the agreement.
Image: Chuck Schumer
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, at the U.S. Capitol last week.Samuel Corum / Getty Images

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, adding it will "reduce out-of-pocket costs for seniors — ensuring drug prices cannot rise faster than inflation — save taxpayer dollars, and protect innovation."

Schumer said he hoped to begin debate on the bill, a crucial piece of President Joe Biden's agenda, on Nov. 15.

Earlier Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had predicted the party could resolve its disputes on the bill "by the end of the day."

Pelosi celebrated the drug-pricing 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 will lower drug prices for seniors, reduce their out-of-pocket co-pays and establish 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 affect all Americans, she said.

Pelosi worked with Sinema to broker the agreement, one source familiar with the negotiations said, adding that the two had spoken at 12:45 p.m. Tuesday to wrap up the deal.

While the agreement represents a major breakthrough, Democrats still have other policy obstacles to overcome before the bill is finalized, including how to deal with immigration.

On Tuesday afternoon, five centrist House Democrats — Ed Case of Hawaii, Jared Golden of Maine, Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, Stephanie Murphy of Florida and Kurt Schrader of Oregon — wrote a letter telling Pelosi they want the Congressional Budget Office or the Joint Committee on Taxation to provide an official cost estimate of the legislation "before any floor consideration" of the Build Back Better proposal.

That could upend Pelosi's plans to hold a vote on the bill this week.

"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, chair of the House Budget Committee, noted that because Democrats have let previous deadlines slip, "I’ve given up saying I have confidence in this."

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, who has been another major holdout in the Senate and has called on the House to vote on the physical infrastructure bill first and hold off on the Build Back Better package, 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 news conference on Tuesday at the United Nations Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, 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 Tuesday 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.

Gottheimer 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 from 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 and Means Chair Richard Neal, D-Mass., declined to confirm or deny that detail but told NBC News, "That’s part of the discussion."

Meanwhile, Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., tweeted that a five-year repeal of the SALT deduction cap would be "beyond unacceptable."

“I am open to a compromise approach which protects the middle class in high tax states. I will not support more tax breaks for billionaires,” he added.

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."