Ron Wyden Takes Victory Lap as Years of Frustrating Work on Climate, Drug Prices Appear Close to Paying Off

Joe Manchin made headlines, but Wyden made much of the policy.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is having a moment.

After years of banging his head against filibusters, Republican opposition, and Democratic foot dragging, the senior senator from Oregon is about to see two of his signature legislative efforts turn into law.

The evenly divided U.S. Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act on Sunday with a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Kamala Harris. Now the bill heads to the House of Representatives, where passage is almost assured by a Democratic majority.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) stole headlines for surprising the world and dropping his mercurial opposition to the bill, but colleagues say Wyden, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, deserves more credit.

“There is lots of credit to go around, but make sure @RonWyden is at the top of the list,” U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn) wrote on Twitter. “He has stuck with climate since the ashes of Waxman-Markey, and before others he saw the power of a straight forward incentive system. As Finance Chair, he ran point and ran it well.”

Waxman-Markey was the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 219 to 212 in 2009. The Senate, where lots of bills go to die, never brought it to the floor for discussion or a vote.

Though the title, crafted to meet this inflationary moment, says nothing about it, one of the IRA’s major aims is to cut carbon emissions, and much of it is rooted in work Wyden started a decade ago, he said in a press release. The cornerstone of the Inflation Reduction Act is a bill that Wyden introduced in 2015 called the Clean Energy for America Act, he said in the release.

“This historic clean energy package has been a decade in the making,” Wyden said. “When clean energy legislation failed in 2010, we regrouped to ensure success the next time Democrats had an opportunity. We turned to emissions-based, technology-neutral tax incentives, and spent nearly a decade preparing this bill. My lodestar has been achieving the greatest emissions and cost-savings possible with 50 votes.”

The bill passed on a day when temperatures in Portland touched 100 degrees and just weeks after the city saw a record-breaking seven consecutive days at 95 degrees or more, according to the National Weather Service.

Wyden said the IRA contains plenty of cash for Oregonians outside his political base in the Willamette Valley, including $20 billion for farmers and ranchers to support climate-smart agriculture practices, $14 billion for rural electric cooperatives to make the transition to cleaner energy, $5 billion to protect communities from wildfires by investing in projects on public and private lands, and more than $4 billion for drought mitigation.

And the IRA was a twofer for Wyden. Its other major plank would allow Medicare, the health insurance program for seniors, to negotiate lower drug prices, particularly for expensive drugs that have no competition after being on the market for years.

On Friday, The New York Times described Wyden as the “architect” of “the most substantial change to health policy since the Affordable Care Act became law in 2010.”

Drug companies, backed with an army of highly paid lobbyists, long opposed Wyden’s efforts, saying they needed profit to pay for the research they do to invent and manufacture life-saving drugs. An October poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 83% of Americans supported letting the federal government negotiate with drug makers, even after both sides presented their position in the debate.

“For too long, Medicare has been forced to contend with Big Pharma with one hand tied behind its back,” Wyden said. “That ends when this bill is signed into law. Ever since I became the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, I have been spotlighting how the drug pricing system is broken top to bottom. At last, the Senate has begun to redefine the relationship between Medicare and big pharma.”