U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have come out swinging against a heavily lobbied healthcare bill they say has been "hijacked" by Big Pharma.
The 21st Century Cures Act, poised to pass the House on Wednesday and the Senate soon after, would ostensibly advance medical innovation with increased funding for initiatives like Vice President Joe Biden's cancer "moonshot" and Alzheimer's research as well as provisions to accelerate the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) approval process.
"Will this Congress say that yes, we're bought and paid for, or will we stand up and work for the American people?"
—Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Unsurprisingly, it has attracted significant interest from the pharmaceutical industry—according to Kaiser Health News: "Other than major appropriations bills, a transportation spending bill, and an energy infrastructure funding bill, the Cures Act garnered more lobbying activity than any of the more than 11,000 bills proposed in the 114th Congress, an analysis of the [Center for Responsive Politics] data shows."
Despite skepticism (pdf) from some liberal advocacy and labor groups, the bill is "expected to win support from other Democrats, who have been negotiating with Republicans for months," The Hill reported Tuesday.
But in a floor speech Monday evening, Warren said the legislation is an example of how lawmakers are beholden to big-moneyed special interests.
"And when American voters say Congress is owned by big companies, this bill is exactly what they are talking about," she said. "Now, we face a choice. Will this Congress say that yes, we're bought and paid for, or will we stand up and work for the American people?"
She decried the bill's bipartisan support as based on false promises—and charged that in fact, Democrats have been victims of "extortion."
"Republican leaders are playing a crafty game, trying to buy off Democratic votes, one-by-one, by tacking on good, bipartisan proposals that Senators in both parties have worked on, in good faith, for years," the progressive senator said to a mostly empty chamber. "A bipartisan mental health bill. Bipartisan provisions protecting the genetic privacy of patients. Bipartisan provisions to give some very limited funding for important priorities like our national opioid crisis and the Vice President's Cancer Moonshot initiative. A proposal to improve foster care."
"I support most of these proposals," she said. "I've worked on many of them for years. I even wrote several of them myself. If this bill becomes law, there is no question it will contain some real legislative accomplishments."
"But I cannot vote for this bill," she continued. "I will fight it because I know the difference between compromise and extortion."
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Compromise is putting together common-sense health proposals supported by Democrats, by Republicans, and by most of the American people, and passing them into law. Extortion is holding those exact same proposals hostage unless everyone agrees to special favors for campaign donors and giveaways to the richest drug companies in the world.
Compromise is when Senators—Democrats and Republicans—find the way forward on issues that matter to their constituents. Extortion is telling those same senators to forget what your constituents want—nothing to deal with the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs and nothing to increase medical research. Instead, every important, common-sense, bipartisan bill on mental health, genetic privacy, opioid addiction, foster care, and anything else will die today—unless Democrats agree to make it easier for giant drug companies to commit fraud, give out kickbacks, and put patients' lives at risk. This demand is enough to make me gag.
According to STAT: "After Warren ended her speech, a stunned-looking Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) rose and protested the senator's language and tone. Cornyn called for more civility."
Watch the offending address below:
Echoing some of Warren's concerns, Sanders added in a statement on Tuesday, "[a]t a time when Americans pay, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs, this bill provides absolutely no relief for soaring drug prices. The greed of the pharmaceutical industry has no limit, and this bill includes numerous corporate giveaways that will make drug companies even richer."
"The American people didn't give Democrats majority support so we could come back to Washington and play dead...They sent us here to stand up for what's right."
—Sen. Elizabeth Warren
"This is a bad bill which should not be passed in its current form," he said. "It's time for Congress to stand up to the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies, not give them more handouts."
Warren went even further, concluding her address: "Republicans are taking over Congress. They are taking over the White House. But Republicans don't have majority support in this country. The majority of voters supported Democratic Senate candidates over Republican ones, and the majority supported a Democratic Presidential candidate over a Republican one."
"The American people didn't give Democrats majority support so we could come back to Washington and play dead," she said. "They didn't send us here to whimper, whine, or grovel. They sent us here to say no to efforts to sell Congress to the highest bidder. They sent us here to stand up for what's right. Now, they are watching, waiting, and hoping—hoping we show some spine and start fighting back when Congress completely ignores the message of the American people and returns to all its same old ways."
Warren has also launched a petition calling on Congress to reject the 21st Century Cures Act as it stands.