U.S. Senate's McConnell cites hurdles to agreement on lowering drug prices

WASHINGTON, Feb 11 (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday he did not know whether lawmakers would be able to resolve divisions over lowering prescription drug prices, a priority raised by President Donald Trump in his State of the Union address last week.

McConnell did not commit to bringing to the Senate floor an existing bipartisan bill on lowering drug prices, by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden. McConnell said there were “internal divisions” on drug pricing within his own Republican party as well as differences between Republicans and Democrats.

“I think everybody agrees that prescription drug prices are too high, the dilemma is how do you get there (to reducing them), and we have divisions within the Republican party on that, and with the Democrats on that,” McConnell told reporters.

“So yeah, we’re going to be talking about it. Whether we can all pull together and get a solution, I’m not prepared to predict today,” McConnell said.

Americans pay the highest prices for prescription drugs in the world, as most other developed nations have single-payer systems with the government negotiating prices for its people.

In his speech to Congress last week, Trump, a Republican, urged lawmakers to rein in drug costs, saying if they send him a bipartisan bill he will sign it into law “immediately.”

Last summer the Senate Finance Committee approved the Grassley-Wyden bill aimed at lowering drug costs for the millions of elderly Americans on the government-run Medicare health insurance program, but the measure has not come to the Senate floor. Some Republicans dislike a provision that would make drug companies pay rebates to Medicare if drug price increases exceed the rate of inflation.

The House of Representatives last year passed its own Democratic-sponsored bill to cut drug costs by empowering the federal government to negotiate prices with drug companies. It got just two Republican votes.

McConnell has said he will not bring up the House bill in the Senate. But Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday that Democrats will insist on a vote on the House bill in any Senate floor debate on drug pricing.

Grassley, meanwhile, was encouraged by Trump’s attention to the issue and said Tuesday he hoped to talk to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, about it. Wyden said “it would be really helpful” if Trump would get on the phone to McConnell and urge support for the bipartisan bill.

Democrats promised to curb prescription drug prices during their 2018 congressional election campaign, when they won the majority in the House. Trump has also promised to lower prices but has been struggling to deliver on that before the November 2020 election. (Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Tom Brown)