ASHINGTON — Donald Trump on Wednesday declared war on drug makers, and one of Capitol Hill’s cardinal truths — the drug industry is untouchable — may be starting to unravel.
For years, drug companies have enjoyed broad support, particularly among Republicans, that helped guard against any unwanted reforms. But after the president-elect’s news conference condemnation of the industry — it’s “disastrous” and companies are “getting away with murder” — drug companies can’t necessarily depend on congressional Republicans to save them in the fight over drug pricing.
In the hours after Trump’s remarks, it was hard to find Republicans on Capitol Hill dismissing the proposal out of hand. They were willing to listen to what he has to say.
Two elemental political forces — the industry’s powerful argument that it produces lifesaving medicines and Trump’s reservoir of goodwill among the Republican Party he just returned to power — seem to be on a collision course.
“A lot will depend on the specifics of what [Trump is] saying, but right now, he’s got the whip hand. I think most Republicans are inclined to support the new president,” said Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a Republican with close ties to House leadership.
“I don’t think you can go home and take a lot of credit with a Republican electorate saying, ‘Hey, I stood up to Donald Trump,’” Cole continued. “He can change the political dynamic inside the Republican House and Senate conferences a lot faster than the [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell] or [House Speaker Paul Ryan] can because he has more direct influence on members.”
Congressman Greg Walden, the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, shrugged as he stepped into a Capitol elevator.
“I’d be happy to listen to what he has to propose,” he said of the president-elect.
He and other lawmakers seemed to have no other choice.
In his remarks, Trump seemed to again suggest that Medicare should be able to directly negotiate the prices it pays for drugs, the kind of reform that sounded more in line with proposals from Senator Bernie Sanders than Ryan or McConnell.
Many people inside and outside the industry had hoped that the realities of the presidency and his role as the Republican Party leader would keep Trump from pursuing that kind of plan. Instead, in his first press conference as president-elect, he attacked the drug industry within the first few minutes of his remarks, without any prompting from reporters.
Medicare negotiations are “not something over the years that I’ve supported,” said Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, one of that chamber’s top Republicans on health care policy. “We’ll have to see what he actually proposes.”
The industry trade organizations publicly said that they looked forward to working with the new president and new Congress and defended once again the work their companies do to produce innovative treatments.
But privately, some on K Street were less poised.
“This is going to be a wild, wild ride!” one lobbyist with pharmaceutical clients said in an email. “Hang on tight!”
Such is life with Trump.
Drug makers can hope that the president-elect won’t follow through — that this was a spontaneous comment that won’t reflect his real policy agenda. But Trump has now repeatedly raised his concerns over drug prices, including on the campaign trail.
In theory, Trump wouldn’t be able to get some of his ideas past Republican leaders who have long balked at giving the federal government such sway over private industry. But his “elemental force,” as Cole put it, could change that calculus.
If Trump, for instance, demands a FDA user-fee agreement with some kind of drug-pricing reforms, he will have the support of Democrats. And if he can persuade rank-and-file Republicans to go along with it, the drug industry’s longstanding influence in Congress could suddenly be in doubt.
“Nobody’s provoking him into talking about it,” said another lobbyist, a former Republican Hill aide. “Pharma should be soiling themselves over this.”