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Cory Booker gets on board with Bernie Sanders

Busboys and Poets' Peace Ball: Voices of Hope and Resistance Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Busboys and Poets

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) faced withering criticism from the left this January after opposing a proposal aimed at lowering prescription drug prices. The backlash was led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who slammed Booker and the 12 other Democrats who joined Republicans to defeat the plan.

But less than a month after the rift, Booker and Sanders are now on the same page. On Tuesday, the senators joined three other congressional Democrats for a press conference announcing a new bill to legalize drug importation from Canada.

It’s still a long way from passing. But Booker signed on to the bill after he successfully lobbied to add dozens of safety provisions to it intended to ensure the drugs were safe. (Booker said he opposed the initial bill out of concern for the safety of Canadian drugs.)

“We have to bring down the prices of prescription drugs in our country,” Booker said at the press conference. “I’m very grateful at the work that has been done over the last few weeks by [Pennsylvania] Sen. [Bob] Casey’s team and Sen. Sanders’s team in putting together this bill.”

The political will behind the bill may be materializing. The first Sanders effort only failed by a 46-52 margin. And in addition to Booker, three other Democrats who opposed the measure in January have now signed on to the new bill. If Republican support for it holds, it should now have 50 votes — just short of what’s needed to pass.

Booker’s team: we’re not caving to criticism

In January, progressives were quick to accuse Booker of helping to torpedo the bill because of his ties to the pharmaceutical industry.

The Huffington Post accused Booker and the other defecting Democrats of “doing the industry’s bidding.” Jezebel noted that Booker had “completely disregarded overwhelming national sentiment,” and that he was setting up Democrats “for a massive failure.” After asking why Booker would vote for an uncontroversial proposal, Slate’s Helaine Olen more or less settles on the conclusion that it must have been campaign contributions from big pharma.

Booker, naturally, did not agree that he was doing the industry’s bidding. He instead said he was concerned about “safety standards” for drugs from Canada, arguing that the Sanders bill didn’t establish Food and Drug Administration safeguards for allowing potentially dangerous foreign drugs.

Independent experts told Vox’s Julia Belluz that these concerns may be overblown — that there were no real health risks associated with Canadian drugs, but that doing so would instead “introduce a measure of competition to the drug market, which may incentivize drug companies to lower prices.”

Still, the new bill does a lot to create safeguards to prevent potential health risks from Canadian drug importation — even if you don’t think they’re real to begin with. Among the requirements included in the new bill that weren’t in Sanders’s original amendment:

  • That foreign sellers of drugs be certified by the US secretary of health and human services
  • That foreign sellers can also only sell drugs manufactured in an FDA-registered facility
  • That certain drugs "that require more specialized handling" — such as insulin and intravenous drugs — would still only be sold by American pharmacies and wholesalers
  • That the HHS secretary could suspend drug importation in the event of a "pattern of importation that involves counterfeit drugs”

The result is a much more bulked-up bill — the new version runs a full 19 pages (which you can read in full here), compared with the mere 20 lines that composed the entirety of the original draft.

Booker will insist that these new provisions explain his reversal on Canadian drug importation, rather than the outpouring of anger he faced from the left. And Sanders’s team is happy to accept whatever rationale he gives, so long as he’s now on board for the bill.