Meet the new leaders of the Senate health panel: Bernie and Cassidy

By: Rachel Roubein; Washington Post
Meet the new leaders of the Senate health panel: Bernie and Cassidy

The Senate’s top health panel is entering a new era of leadership.

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) are likely to take the reins, with both lawmakers announcing yesterday their intentions to pursue top spots on the Senate HELP Committee next year. Though not yet official, it’s expected that both will assume the posts on the panel with jurisdiction over the nation’s public health agencies, the Food and Drug Administration and other aspects of federal health policy. 

The pairing avoids the unpredictability and potentially explosive clashes of a committee led by Sanders and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), which was a distinct possibility earlier this week. Paul, a fierce critic of the Biden administration’s pandemic response, announced yesterday that he was opting to be the top Republican on the Senate’s chief oversight panel instead.

The committee will have a more moderate ranking member in Cassidy, a gastroenterologist who voted to impeach Trump after Jan. 6 and is known for being a health policy wonk. With Sanders, the committee will be led by a firebrand whose rise — particularly with the 2016 presidential election — has led to the party’s embrace of more liberal health policies.

Sanders and Cassidy don’t have a lengthy history of working together, making it difficult to pinpoint where they will wind up finding common ground. But doing so will be imperative to getting anything done in a split Congress and a razor-thin Democratic majority in the Senate.

Bernie Watch

Sanders has long championed a far-reaching proposal to transform Medicare into a single-payer system, granting the federal government sweeping power to negotiate the cost of drug prices. If he helms the health committee, universal coverage and lowering the cost of medicines would be top priorities for him, according to spokesman Mike Casca.

Medicare-for-all and drug negotiation are both technically under the purview of the Senate Finance Committee, but leading the health committee would still give Sanders a high-profile platform to promote both policies. 

He would also have the power to pursue legislation broadly authorizing the importation of drugs from other countries — a policy he attempted to push through the HELP Committee earlier this year to no avail. Sanders is known for his penchant for railing against pharmaceutical companies, whether during committee hearings or on the Senate floor. 

  • “He’ll go after [the drug companies] at every turn, and they only have a couple friends left in the caucus any more so it’s going to be tough,” said one Democratic pharmaceutical lobbyist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be candid.

Some people on and off the Hill privately wondered whether Sanders would be able to build consensus among Republicans and within the Democratic caucus. But his defenders contend he’s a savvy politician who knows when to try and push the bounds, and when to come to the table, noting that he voted for Democrats’ economic package over the summer even though it was far smaller in scope than he wanted. 

  • “I think there’s a caricature out there of Bernie Sanders that doesn’t take note of the fact that the guy is a politician who has been doing this for a really long time,” said Alex Lawson, the executive director of left-leaning advocacy group Social Security Works. “He knows how to work with his colleagues.”
Cassidy Watch

Cassidy as the top Republican on the health committee will likely be much different than Paul in the post. One Senate GOP aide said they believed the Louisiana senator — who has also said he’ll decide this week whether he’ll run for governor — would be more focused on legislating rather than probing the pandemic. 


But Cassidy would still be interested in scrutinizing aspects of the Biden administration’s health policies, even though his powers to do so will be limited in the minority. 

Specifically, Cassidy told The Health 202 that he wants to conduct oversight into how the federal government is implementing a law to stop surprise medical bills. He was instrumental in pushing a more doctor-friendly version of the legislation and argued the administration hasn’t carried out the law as Congress intended. 

Meanwhile, Cassidy has been open to nontraditional ways of paying for drugs. The senator was supportive of Louisiana’s efforts under a Democratic governor to chart a new way of paying for expensive hepatitis C treatments, where the state would pay a flat fee and get unlimited supply of the drug. 


But not all Cassidy’s efforts have been bipartisan. In 2017, he mounted a last-ditch campaign to salvage the GOP’s failed bid to repeal and replace Obamacare. But the legislation didn’t have the votes, prompting Sanders to declare a “major victory” for the American people in stopping “another disastrous Republican proposal.”