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Posted July 17, 2018 11:23 p.m. EDT

Time for Republicans to Grow a Spine

The dark bond between President Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin reached a new level this week, as the U.S. president betrayed his own intelligence agencies — and the entire nation — by publicly snuggling up to his Russian counterpart. Trump’s fawning over Putin was so disgraceful and creepy — oh, that wink! — that even many Republican lawmakers felt moved to express their discomfort.

But as cathartic as it may be for lawmakers to vent over Trump’s subservience to the Russian strongman, words alone are worth about as much as Putin’s assurances that Russia did not meddle in the 2016 elections. Those Republicans looking for a pretext to avoid confronting a president of their party — those accustomed to behaving like whipped dogs — may try to dodge behind Trump’s clumsy attempt Tuesday to weasel out of his most egregious comments. But those who are serious about defending American democracy and undoing the damage of Trump’s globally televised submissiveness have the power to take action.

Sen. Jeff Flake’s push for a resolution condemning the president’s comments is a lovely start, though a bit tame under the circumstances. To help get things rolling, here are several additional suggestions, organized on an ascending scale based on the amount of political courage needed.

Let’s start easy, with a handful of “Non-Lickspittle” moves, some of which have already been called for by Senate Democrats:

1. Fully implement the broad Russia sanctions bill passed last year, with a special focus on Putin and the oligarchs in his inner circle. Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee put some fresh ones on the table months ago. Now seems like a good time to revisit.

2. Hold hearings and compel testimony from the national security team that accompanied Trump to Helsinki, Finland. Demand details of any pledges made in the Trump-Putin private session.

3. Stop parroting the president’s line that the federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies are politically motivated, inept and generally corrupt. At the very least, House Speaker Paul Ryan should publicly call out his rowdier troops for pushing to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

4. Call on Trump to demand the extradition of the Russians whom the Justice Department gained indictments for last week.

5. Take additional steps to protect the integrity of the coming elections from further Russian meddling. Significantly more money is needed, along with incentives for state and local election agencies to identify weak spots, erect firewalls and pursue other precautions. From what we already know about Russia’s invading voter databases, it is eager to make mischief.

Moving in the direction of requiring more political spine, let’s next consider “Laudably Responsible” steps:

6. Pass legislation protecting Robert Mueller’s investigation. Ryan’s enduring confidence that Trump would never be so rash as to ax the special counsel suggests, at best, a naive optimism. (Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, said last month it was time for Mueller to “wrap it up.”) And skip all the whinging about how Trump wouldn’t sign such a bill. Pro tip: Vetoes can be overridden. Look it up.

7. Pass legislation preventing Trump from unilaterally pulling out of NATO. Will this displease the president — and Putin — and draw fire from the base? Yes. But if lawmakers weren’t merely covering their hides with the pro-NATO resolution they released last week, they should move to give it substance.

And finally, on the off chance that some Republican lawmakers seriously want to show they care more about the public good than about their petty partisan or personal ambitions, here are a few ways to “Poke the Bear”:

8. House leadership should remove Rep. Devin Nunes as head of the Intelligence Committee. Nunes has done as much as any member of Congress to undermine a credible investigation into the administration’s dealings with Russia. He needs to be put in a safe corner miles away from the entire issue.

9. Pass a resolution censuring the president for his Helsinki display. Let Putin know that not every American politician is eager to be his dancing bear.

10. Refuse to confirm even one more nominee, judicial or executive, until you get some of the aforementioned answers and protections. Yes, absolutely including the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

The News on Drug Prices? Nothing Good

It has been two months since the president released his road map for lowering drug costs that seems to lead nowhere, and about a month since he predicted the “big drug companies” would announce “voluntary massive” price cuts. Here’s where things stand:

A congressional investigation has found that the drug company Novartis got more out of its $1.2 million payment to Trump’s “personal attorney” Michael Cohen than had been known. Meanwhile, several other drugmakers defied Trump’s lofty prediction by raising their prices substantially, while his administration shot down a proposal that would have helped individual states lower their drug costs.

Taken together, the developments help explain why, a year and a half after Trump took office, prescription drugs cost more than ever.

Let’s start with Novartis: When a lawyer for Stephanie Clifford, the pornographic film star suing Trump, revealed that the drug company was among those who had made payments to Cohen after the election, Novartis executives insisted they’d had only one meeting before concluding that Cohen didn’t know enough about health care policy to be helpful. But Senate Democrats have since found that the company actually had several meetings, that drug-pricing policies were on the agenda and that a number of proposals Novartis pushed for made it into the White House plan.

For his part, Trump made a show of chastising the industry on Twitter when several drugmakers raised their prices this month. He called out Pfizer specifically, saying the company “should be ashamed” of itself. The tweet led to a phone call between the company’s chief executive and the president, after which Pfizer agreed to hold off on those price increases for six months, or until the administration had a chance to put its road map into action.

Trump said the concession was “great news for the American people,” but it might actually be more of a coup for the pharmaceutical industry. By tying its actions to the president’s initiative, Pfizer now has both a stick and a carrot to wield: implement a policy that benefits the industry and maybe the company will abandon its price increases; create one that hurts the industry and the company may raise prices once again. In any case, none of the other drugmakers that raised their prices followed Pfizer’s lead, meaning that those increases are all still in place.

These machinations would be troubling enough by themselves. But the administration seems intent on adding insult to injury, by blocking states from carrying out a policy that might actually make a dent in the drug-cost problem.

That proposal would have opened the door on allowing state Medicaid programs to deny coverage for certain medications. Private insurance companies, the Department of Veterans Affairs and many other countries with drug prices far lower than ours already do this, but Medicaid is required to cover all federally approved medications, no matter how much they cost or how well (or poorly) they work. If states were allowed to circumvent this rule, they would be able to avoid paying for pricey new drugs that aren’t necessarily as effective as cheaper versions already on the market. They would also have much more negotiating power because they would be able to walk away from the table for drugs that were overpriced.

Massachusetts asked the administration for a waiver that would allow it to try this approach. But in June, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Health and Human Services agency that regulates these two insurance programs, rejected that proposal and issued a notice to all states, reiterating that all Medicaid programs must cover all drugs.

“It takes away a substantial tool that a lot of states were hoping to use,” says Rachel Sachs, a law professor and drug policy expert at Washington University in St. Louis. It also points to a hypocrisy, she says. “They’re permissive when it comes to work requirements that put added burden on the vulnerable, but protective when it comes to measures that would strain the pharmaceutical industry.”

It’s unclear where we go from here. The administration’s road map for lowering drug costs was short on details about when or how any of its provisions might take effect. And while there’s no telling what Trump discussed with Pfizer that caused it to temporarily halt planned price increases, the exchanges between Cohen and Novartis hardly inspire good faith. In fact, if the industry is “getting away with murder,” as Trump once claimed, it stands to reason that at this point, it’s doing it with the president’s help.

The good news is that elections are coming, and lawmakers know that Americans are enraged by soaring drug costs. By keeping the pressure on, we may see real change yet.

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