DeLauro, a close ally of Pelosi, and Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) both argued during the meeting that Democrats shouldn’t water down key priorities in the bill, specifically, the number of drugs that Medicare is allowed to negotiate — a long-standing sticking point in discussions.
But Pelosi and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), another senior progressive, defended the bill, H.R. 3, which has been among the Democratic caucus’ top legislative priorities since reclaiming the majority.
“There’s a strong consensus that we must take action, and there’s a robust debate about what kind of action will be most effective,” Porter said as she left the meeting. “That’s what this process should look like.”
A Democratic aide in the room disputed that the debate became heated, noting that the discussion focused on a technical aspect of the legislation — whether or not the legislation actually eliminates a longstanding ban on Medicare negotiating prices directly with drug companies.
Democratic leaders have touted their legislation as lifting the ban on negotiations. But in reality, the bill only creates an narrow exception to the clause — a minor difference that some Democrats worry could fuel attacks down the road for overselling one of its core provisions.
“It’s very technical, and that’s why there was a back-and-forth, because it’s so complicated,” the aide said.
The bill would require the federal government to negotiate prices on at least 35 high-cost medicines, achieving a longtime policy goal for liberals. But some progressives have argued that most drugs would never be negotiated under the current plan, and worry that Democrats might oversell their legislation.
DeLauro said after the meeting that she is still waiting to see the final version of the bill, which will go through its third and final markup on Tuesday. She acknowledged “there are questions about the numbers of drugs covered.”
“Overall, it is a giant step forward. We’re taking on the issue of prescription drugs, whereas others are just talking about it,” DeLauro said in a brief interview. “The administration talks out of both sides of its mouth on this issue. Democrats are looking for a proposal, which is what we promised to do.”
She later told POLITICO in a statement that she was seeking clarity on an aspect of the prescription drug bill during Tuesday’s caucus meeting and intends to vote for the bill.
“I fully stand behind our efforts to help the tens of millions of people suffering from skyrocketing prescription drug costs,” she said. “We are taking action for the people as the Trump administration talks a big game but does nothing.”
Progressives have long argued that House Democrats should draft the boldest possible drug pricing bill to tout to the base. But other Democrats — including dozens of moderates serving in formerly GOP seats — have argued the House should tee up only legislation that stands a chance in the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said previously that Pelosi’s drug pricing plan won’t be considered in the Senate.
That fight echoes a much broader debate that has consumed the caucus for months: whether to draft legislation to cater to the progressive base, or seek common ground with Republicans in hope of sending something through the Senate.
For moderate Democrats, especially those in the most GOP-leaning districts, the prescription drug pricing bill has taken on even more significance as the House enters the second month of an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
Adam Cancryn contributed to this report.