Sen. Bernard Sanders cast doubt Wednesday on whether Democrats can reach an agreement on their social welfare package when he vowed not to back off on disputes with party moderates on expanding Medicare, reducing drug prices and taxing billionaires.
“Sometimes when we’re inside the beltway, we lose track of reality where the American people are,” said Mr. Sanders, Vermont independent and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.
“So let me repeat. The American people are very clear about what they want their government to do. And they want to lower prescription drug costs, which in some cases are 10 times higher than in other countries for the same exact drug. They want us to have the courage to take on the pharmaceutical industry, which is now spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make sure we pay the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs,” he told reporters.
However, a proposal to require drug companies to reduce the prices they charge Medicare and to require the same prices be charged to people on private insurance is being opposed by moderates.
The liberal consumer advocacy group, Protect Our Care, has called a compromise measure being considered to significantly reduce the number of drugs that would be covered, “a sham.”
Democrats are trying to reach agreement on at least the framework of a deal by the end of Wednesday before President Biden leaves the country Thursday to attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
Mr. Sanders, though, expressed doubts about reaching an agreement by then.
The problem for Democrats is that with the Senate evenly split, they cannot lose the support of either moderates or Mr. Sanders.
Mr. Sanders indicated no willingness to bend on a number of issues including expanding Medicare in the package to cover seniors’ dental, vision and hearing treatment.
The position puts him at odds with Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, who opposes the idea saying the government should not be expanding a program that is on track to become insolvent in 2026.
Still, Mr. Sanders said the Medicare expansion he is championing will be in the final package.
“The American people are very clear that in the richest country in the world, elderly people should be able to digest their food and have teeth in their mouth and have hearing aids if they need it,” he said.
Mr. Sanders insisted as well that, despite opposition from some Democrats and all Republicans in Congress, the American people also want to see taxes increase for the wealthy.
“The American people are very clear that the wealthiest people in this country have got to stop paying their fair share of taxes … So the challenge that we face in this really unusual moment in American history is whether we have the courage to stand with the American people and take on very powerful special interests, and I’m going to do everything that I can to support the president’s agenda,” he said.
Not everyone is on board, however.
Moderate Democrats, like Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have signaled their opposition to raising corporate taxes and the income-tax rate on top earners.
A compromise proposal drafted by Democratic leaders, taxing billionaires annually on any increase in the value of their assets, has similarly been sidelined by Mr. Manchin.
“I don’t like the connotation that we’re targeting different people,” Mr. Manchin said. “There are people that basically contribute to society and create a lot of jobs, invest a lot of money and give a lot to philanthropic pursuits.”
Democrats were hoping that a tax on billionaires would raise enough revenue to fund all the new programs being considered within the reconciliation package.
Without a proper funding mechanism, lawmakers say they cannot move forward with a final package.
“Every sensible revenue option seems to be destroyed,” said Mr. Sanders, a self-described socialist from Vermont. “It seems to me that almost every sensible progressive revenue option that the president wants, that the American people want, seems to be sabotaged.”