WASHINGTON, D.C. – Democrats have argued for more generous pandemic relief, more pressure on drugmakers to lower prices and more attention to systemic racism in health care. On January 20, with control of the Senate and the House of Representatives, they’ll have the power to choose which health care proposals get a vote in Congress.
The victories of the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia last week gave Democrats two more Senate seats and the upper hand in the Senate’s now 50-50 split. After Vice President-elect Kamala Harris takes the oath of office, she will serve as the tiebreaker as needed — in effect, Democrats’ 51st vote.
But that vote count is too small to eliminate the filibuster, meaning Democrats will not have enough votes to pass many of their plans without Republicans. That will likely doom many Democratic health care proposals, like offering Americans a government-sponsored public insurance option, and complicate efforts to pass further pandemic relief.
It remains to be seen how willing lawmakers are to compromise with one another in the aftermath of a pro-Trump mob’s breach of the Capitol on Wednesday. Thursday, Democrats demanded the president’s removal for inciting rioters who disrupted the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, assaulted Capitol Police officers and damaged federal property. One demonstrator and a police officer were killed, and three demonstrators died of medical emergencies.
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Democrats’ slim margins in the Senate and the House — where they can afford to lose only four votes and still pass legislation — will also give individual lawmakers more leverage, handing those who disagree with party leaders an incentive to push their own priorities in exchange for their votes. There will be little room for intraparty disagreements, and Democrats made it clear during the presidential primaries that they disagree about how to achieve their health care goals.
In less than two weeks, Democrats will lead the committees charged with marking up health care legislation and vetting Biden’s health nominees.
The change will hand control of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who brokered the 2013 agreement with then-House Speaker Paul Ryan that ended a long government shutdown, among other bipartisan deals.
In 2019, Murray and the committee’s Republican chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, introduced a wide-ranging package to lower health costs for consumers. Among its proposals was an initiative to lower prescription drug prices by eliminating loopholes that allow brand-name drugmakers to block competition.
In an interview before Democrats secured the Senate, Murray said her committee work will be focused on the problems that prevent all Americans from receiving equitable, affordable treatment in health care. Racial disparities, evidenced by disproportionate mortality rates among Black mothers and among communities of color suffering the worst impacts of the pandemic, will be a priority, she said.
“Not everybody goes into the doctor and gets the same advice, feels the same comfort level and is believed,” Murray said.
Murray said she will press for senators to consider how any piece of legislation will affect communities of color. “It will be the question I ask about every step we take,” she said.
On Wednesday, she called out Republicans for standing in the way of fighting the pandemic “with policies that would directly help those struggling the most and would help us build back from this crisis stronger and fairer.”
“With a Biden-Harris Administration and a Senate Democratic majority, the challenges we face won’t get any less tough — but we’ve finally got the opportunity to face them head on and start taking action,” Murray said in a statement. “I can’t wait to start getting things done.”
The Senate Finance Committee, which oversees Medicare, Medicaid and health-related tax policies, will be run by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). While the HELP committee will also hold a confirmation hearing for Biden’s nominee for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, it is the Finance Committee that will vote to advance his confirmation.
Senate Republicans signaled they would delay considering Becerra’s nomination before Biden officially announced his name last month. Calling him unqualified due to his lack of a health care background, they questioned his support for a single-payer health care system and opposed his efforts to preserve abortion rights. As California’s attorney general, Becerra led efforts to fight lawsuits brought by Republican state officials against the Affordable Care Act.
But Democrats’ slim edge in the Senate is expected to be enough to drown out Republicans’ objections to the nomination. Last month, praising Becerra’s commitment to responding to the pandemic, protecting health care coverage and addressing racial disparities, Wyden said he looked forward to Becerra’s hearing “so he can get on the job and start helping people during this unprecedented crisis.”
Also, after months of decrying the Trump administration’s failures managing the pandemic, Democrats will control which relief bills get a vote.
Last month’s package did not include their demands for more funding for state and local governments, and House Republicans blocked a Democratic effort to increase stimulus checks to $2,000, from $600.
Democrats have been united in their calls for more assistance, though they have disagreed at times about how to push for it.
In the fall, with the election approaching and no deal in sight, moderate Democrats in tough races pushed for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to abandon negotiations for a $2.2 trillion relief package that Republicans called a nonstarter in favor of passing more modest but desperately needed relief.
“Every member of the leadership team, Democrats and Republicans, have messed up. Everyone is accountable,” Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.) told Politico. “Get something done. Get something done!” He lost his bid for reelection.
More progressive voices like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have been a force for more generous aid, particularly larger stimulus checks.
Beyond the pandemic, top Democrats have mentioned drug pricing as another area ripe for action. But one of their most popular proposals, which would authorize the federal government to negotiate drug prices for those on Medicare, is unlikely to attract the Republican votes it would need. When House Democrats passed one such proposal in 2019, Senate Republicans vowed it would never pass.
Members of Democrats’ more progressive wing, for their part, argued the proposal may not go far enough.
After years of Republican efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act, though, it looks likely that efforts to stabilize the law could gain more traction under a Democratic-controlled Congress. The House passed legislation last summer aimed at increasing coverage and affordability, including by capping insurance costs at no more than 8.5% of income and expanding subsidies.
Lawmakers like Murray and Wyden have been quick to point out that the pandemic’s devastating consequences — lost jobs and lost insurance coverage, to name just a couple — have only underscored the need to strengthen the health care system.
This story also ran KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.