POLITICS
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Nelson Ready To Bust Pharma Deal: 'They Need 60 Votes, Don't They?'

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said on Sunday that if leadership doesn't work with him on his amendment that would break the White House deal with Big Pharma, he won't be there to support the bill.

On Saturday, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said that his drug re-importation amendment was the only one so far guaranteed by leadership to get a floor vote.

HuffPost asked Nelson if he had gotten a similar guarantee. "I haven't gotten a guarantee, but they're going to have to," he said.

And why is that?

"They need 60 votes, don't they?" said a smiling Nelson. Democrats need 60 votes -- precisely the size of their caucus -- to break a filibuster and move to a final vote. The precarious nature of the super-majority gives individual senators veto power over the bill.

Nelson said that he could be willing to settle for less than a full floor vote if leadership included a version of his measure in the "manager's amendment" that will come toward the end of the floor process. "I'm a reasonable man," said Nelson.

The manager's amendment will largely replace the current bill and make changes desired by senators that might not be able to get 60 votes or don't warrant the floor time that would be needed.

Nelson's amendment would work to close the "doughnut hole" by requiring the drug makers to give the government rebates on drugs sold to Medicare and Medicaid patients. It could cost the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) -- and save the government -- $106 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Nelson represents Florida, where elderly voters can make or break a political career.

PhRMA, the Senate Finance Committee and the White House agreed to oppose such extensive rebates and limit the drug-makers commitment to $80 billion over 10 years.

Nelson argues that the $80 billion commitment is a mirage and that the commitment is really only $22 billion, citing an analysis done by Morgan Stanley. Drug makers have been dramatically raising prices over the course of the last year so that when reductions come, they'll be reductions from higher prices.

Nelson told HuffPost that the White House and PhRMA both pressured him not to offer his amendment before the Finance Committee. He did so anyway, but it failed, with Democratic senators publicly defending the deal.

Nelson said that neither the administration nor the drug lobby has spoken to him about his amendment since. White House and PhRMA representatives weren't immediately available.