With Biden’s agenda hanging in the balance, lobbying shifts into high gear

WASHINGTON – As centrist Congressional Democrats scrambled to block or remove key provisions of President Biden’s social safety net and $ 3.5 trillion climate plan, a series of online ads appeared in their States and districts, lavishing praise on them.

One of them describes Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who has become one of the main refractors of the measure, as an “independent voice” and a “bipartisan leader”. Another said Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader is pushing for the “Biden-Schrader” agenda, although he clearly opposes key parts of the president’s agenda. A third praises Rep. Kathleen Rice of New York for “fighting for our health care and our economy,” even as she undermines elements of Mr. Biden’s plan.

There’s one thing the ads don’t say so clearly: They are paid for by pharmaceutical industry-funded groups and business interests who are pushing to kill or reshape crucial elements of the president’s plan.

As Democrats strive to keep Mr. Biden’s proposal on track in Congress amid deep internal divisions, a strong campaign of influence meets her at every turn. Business groups are working hard to combat large areas, such as increasing taxes on the rich and on businesses; expand health insurance to cover dental, hearing and vision services; and the taxes and fees proposed to reduce carbon emissions.

The effort is unfolding in a less visible way than previous lobbying pressures; pandemic restrictions have limited large lobbyist gatherings on Capitol Hill, so the hallway outside the Senate Finance Committee office, which has long been known as “Gucci Gulch,” is no longer invaded by shiny Italian shoes. But the campaign is running more intensely than ever, through one-on-one meetings, Zoom calls, fundraisers and airwaves.

More than 4,000 lobbyists work on budget and spending matters, according to Open Secrets, a nonprofit watchdog group that tracks money in politics. Ten major industries spent nearly $ 700 million this year on lobbying, the group said.

The United States Chamber of Commerce, which is pushing to scrap the bill because of its tax increases, has already spent around $ 30 million this year on lobbyists. The pharmaceutical industry, which is trying to defeat a proposal to cut drug costs, has spent more than $ 15 million.

“Every group is reaching out and wanting a meeting,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, a leading advocate for using the sweeping budget bill to raise taxes for the rich. “If they don’t get a commitment in the first meeting, they want a second meeting, then a third, then a fourth. They are very attentive. “

Influence campaigns go both ways. Several political action committees and other influence groups are spending freely to expand the bill even further and push for its passage.

Building Back Together, a group formed to support the proposals, is part of a coalition that has pledged to spend $ 150 million on advertising to build support for Mr. Biden’s plan. The League of Conservation Voters spent nearly $ 6.7 million this month on advertising, according to analytics firm AdImpact. He urges Congress to halve carbon pollution by 2030 – part of the package – and has threatened to withhold campaign donations from Democrats who do not support him.

Perhaps no aspect of the package generated more lobbying activity than a proposal to lower the cost of prescription drugs by allowing Medicare to negotiate their cost. The pharmaceutical lobby is spending over a million dollars on TV ads to oppose it. And there are now nearly 1,500 pharmaceutical or healthcare lobbyists registered in Congress, nearly three for each member, according to Open Secrets.

Ken Frazier, the executive chairman of Merck, which helps fund ads, conceded in a recent call with reporters that companies are fighting the proposal so hard because they think it will reduce their income. But he also described the lobbying pressure as altruistic, arguing that lower profits would result in less money for research and development of new treatments and cures for diseases.

“We looked at what that would be,” Frazier said. “We modeled it, and our ability to fund R&D within Merck will be nearly halved.”

PhRMA, the trade group representing pharmaceutical companies, launched its first ad against the package last month. In it, a woman named Sue looks at the camera, a tinge of melancholy in her voice, and says the Democrats’ plan “would make it harder for people on Medicare to get the drugs we need.” “. The ad is shown frequently on political news broadcasts watched by policymakers.

The association followed the ad with another accusing politicians of wanting to decide “what drugs you can and cannot get, regardless of what your doctor prescribes.” This was followed by a print advertising campaign and then an open letter from 30 pharmaceutical companies.

At the same time, a group called Center Forward is running targeted digital ads supporting centrist Democrats who are working to cut the bill. The group receives nearly $ 1.5 million per year from PhRMA, according to tax records.

“Thank Kyrsten Sinema and tell him to keep fighting as an independent voice for Arizona,” one of the ads said, as Ms. Sinema was engaged in discussions with the White House over the removal of items in the president’s package.

Another, aimed at constituents in Representative Scott Peters’ California District, said: “We can always count on Scott Peters to deliver.”

Pharmaceutical companies have donated to members of Congress, but none more than Mr. Peters, who has received more than $ 88,000 this year alone. He was one of three Democrats to oppose Mr Biden’s plan to lower the cost of prescription drugs on the Energy and Trade Committee.

PhRMA insists its influence campaign isn’t trying to kill Mr. Biden’s multi-billion dollar bill – they are offering an alternative plan that would be less costly to the industry – but the package’s demise is here. target of some other groups.

The US Chamber of Commerce has condemned the legislation, its chief executive, Suzanne Clark, saying it would “dramatically expand the size and reach of government through record levels of inflationary spending and impose massive tax increases. which will put an end to the fragile economic recovery of the United States ”.

“The chamber will do everything in its power to prevent this bill on fiscal and employment-damaging reconciliation from becoming law,” Clark promised.

No Labels, a business-funded organization with close ties to centrist lawmakers including West Virginia Democrat Senator Joe Manchin III, is working to push through the $ 1,000 billion infrastructure plan of Mr. Biden, but acts to kill the larger social policy plan.

When Mr. Manchin called for a “pause” on Mr. Biden’s $ 3.5 trillion social policy plan, No Labels quickly issued an announcement endorsing his “common sense” stance.

The lobbying angered Liberals who accuse corporate influence campaigns of obstructing their party’s highest priorities.

“We see it on television every day,” said Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “It’s really sad, because this is the president’s agenda.”

No Labels did not respond to a request for comment.

The American Dental Association is mobilizing its members to oppose Medicare expansion to cover dental, hearing and vision benefits, arguing it would cost dentists too much. The Independent Petroleum Association of America is fighting new fees or taxes on energy companies, which they say will increase costs for customers. Likewise, the American Petroleum Institute lobbied against a charge on methane emissions.

“While the stated goal of this vast data collection is to uncover tax evasion by the wealthy, this proposal does not remotely target that goal or that population,” the organization recently wrote to key lawmakers. The association said it had “significant confidentiality concerns” about the provision, which it said “would create enormous liability for all parties involved.”

Supporters of Mr. Biden’s agenda have also gone on the offensive.

The Working Families Party has recently started targeting critical ads at Ms Sinema, who has received campaign contributions from business interests opposed to the package.

“She prefers to protect wealthy donors,” says one of the group’s ads about Ms. Sinema, encouraging supporters to voice their opposition to her.

Many centrist Democrats who are prime targets of lobbying deny being influenced by the influence campaign.

Mr Peters said it was not surprising that he receives large donations from pharmaceutical companies, noting that many of them, including Eli Lilly, Pfizer and Takeda, have offices in San Diego. He and Mr. Schrader presented an alternative proposal favored by the industry.

“While I carefully consider their input on different aspects of each issue, I vote based on what I think best serves the people of Oregon – not specific interests,” Mr. Schrader. Rice said she was simply looking for a way to reduce drug costs that would be more likely to gain Senate support than the current proposal.

Independent Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont, who as chairman of the budget committee is a key architect of the social safety net plan, said the lobbying effort was as active as any he had seen.

“At a time when we are trying to pass unprecedented legislation that benefits working families, we are seeing an unprecedented level of lobbying from powerful vested interests who want to defeat us,” Sanders said.

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