WASHINGTON – Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s early focus in Congress this year is on the kind of popular, consumer-oriented measures that have been a foundation of her Senate career.
At the start of her third term in office and weighing a run for president, Klobuchar in recent weeks has emphasized her renewed push for cheaper prescription drugs, and for tighter privacy laws for social media users. With both, she’s touting collaboration with Republican colleagues in hopes of progress despite a divided Congress.
“Let’s get this done,” Klobuchar says in a video posted on her Twitter account this week, where she argues for three measures she’s sponsored intended to lower prescription prices. “We should be governing from opportunity for the people of America. Not a crisis.”
Klobuchar has said in recent weeks that she’s considering a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. She has not yet announced her decision, but her goals in the new congressional term offer a preview of issues that could help comprise a presidential platform. “She’s always been very disciplined about how she’s approached the legislative process, focusing mostly on a handful of issues most of which tilt toward a pro-consumer bent, and working hard on those,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and native Minnesotan who worked with Klobuchar when he was a top aide to former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. “The change now if she runs for president is she’s going to have to expand her portfolio a little bit.”
In explaining her efforts on prescription costs, Klobuchar cited the overwhelming support among Americans for price controls. A poll taken in December by Harvard and Politico found that lowering drug prices was the top on Americans’ wishlist for the new Congress. But she said not to interpret her work on that or any issue as fodder for a national campaign.
“These are things I have long advocated for as opposed to finding some bright shiny new objects,” Klobuchar said. “These are things I have a long track record on, and there’s a reason I’m impatient for it, because I’ve been saying we should do it for a long time.”
Klobuchar noted that four of the 10 top-selling medications have increased by more than 100 percent in the last few years.
Two of her measures are co-sponsored with Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa: to allow for importation of less expensive prescription drugs from other countries and to crack down on so-called “pay for delay” deals by which pharmaceutical companies pay manufacturers of generic competitors to keep them off the market.
Klobuchar also sponsored a measure to allow Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices, a long-sought goal of Democrats in Washington.
Klobuchar’s legislation wouldn’t go as far as proposals by some other Democrats in Congress, said Peter Maybarduk, director of the Access to Medicines program at Public Citizen, a D.C.-based nonprofit consumer advocacy group. He cited a more sweeping package sponsored by Klobuchar’s fellow Minnesota Democrat, Sen. Tina Smith.
“They’re not the most muscular, not the most assertive approaches. But they are good and important steps,” Maybarduk said of Klobuchar’s proposals.
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Advocacy groups particularly like a proposal by Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas that would give government direct power to introduce generics to the market if manufacturers fail to set a reasonable price, he said.
But Maybarduk added that Klobuchar has signaled support for more aggressive legislation; she’s a cosponsor of Smith’s bill. He singled out her pay-for-delay proposal as particularly important and praised her for teaming up with Grassley on that measure. The Iowan is the new chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which regulates drug pricing.
“Many patients struggle to afford the medicines they need, but Senator Klobuchar’s proposals would disrupt care and put patients in harm’s way without addressing affordability challenges,” Nicole Longo, director of public affairs for the pharmaceutical trade group PhRMA, said in a statement. “Instead, PhRMA supports policy solutions that balance affordability with choice like addressing misaligned incentives in the supply chain and encouraging generic competition.”
PhRMA has long been seen as one of the most powerful interest groups on Capitol Hill; critics frequently cite the statistic that it employs two D.C. lobbyists for every member of Congress. Democrats and Republicans alike, including President Donald Trump, have vowed to address skyrocketing prescription costs.
“Nothing has passed. Not during the Obama administration and not during the Trump administration,” Klobuchar said. “Congress hasn’t passed one thing that changes this equation.”
Another goal that Klobuchar carried over from the previous term is to bolster data privacy protections for users of social media sites like Facebook.
Her package of legislation, also co-sponsored by a Republican senator, would require the companies to let users opt out of data sharing and to publish in plain language the information needed to opt out. In addition, the companies would be required to notify users within 72 hours if their personal information was disclosed in a data breach.
On Wednesday, Klobuchar rolled out another collaboration with Grassley: a measure aimed at boosting resources for veterans’ health care facilities facing a shortage of health professionals. And on Twitter, she touted another proposal from the last Congress to push back against U.S. election meddling by foreign adversaries.
Manley said those types of measures would undoubtedly be popular with a wide swath of voters. But he said if Klobuchar does run for president, she’ll have to find ways to make a bigger impact — whether through legislative proposals or memorable moments on camera in legislative hearings and floor debates.
“She should focus on the bread and butter, no question,” Manley said. “But if she gets in the race, she’s going to have to deal more and talk more about issues she hasn’t focused on in the past.”