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The Kennedy-Brown Convergence

Politico’s Patrick O’Connor reports that the biotech lobby is threatening to back Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown’s bid for Senate in a last-ditch effort to strengthen in its hand in the health-care negotiations:

The state chapter went as far as drafting a press release to endorse Brown, according to multiple people on a Friday conference call that included industry lobbyists. The Bay State has a thriving biotechnology industry, giving the group sway this close to the election. But so far, the group hasn't sent the release or offered an official endorsement. Instead, two people familiar with the discussion say the group is waiting until they hear something more definitive from the White House or congressional leaders...

What’s at stake is a 12-year protection for pricey biologic drugs against generic competition—a provision that’s enshrined in both House and Senate bills, which Obama said he opposed last week. The unexpected news was enough to prompt PhRMA to threaten to torpedo the bill if Democrats end up weakening 12-year shield. If that happens, it certainly won’t be a surprise if the local biotech lobby swings for Brown, who’s campaigned for Ted Kennedy’s former seat on killing health-reform reform.

The great irony here is that it was Kennedy—the spiritual and legislative godfather of the current bill—who had inserted the provision protecting the biotech industry in the first place. In fact, Kennedy had originally pushed for a 13-year exclusivity shield on generic competition, which ultimately evolved into the 12-year protection in the Senate HELP Committee’s version of the bill and laid the groundwork for the language in the legislation that passed both houses last year.

Given Kennedy’s reputation as health reform’s liberal beacon, some were taken aback with his defense of the drug lobby on the issue. (Liberals like Sherrod Brown fought to shorten the window to 5 or 7 years, arguing that the longer window would hurt consumers.) Tim Noah tried to piece together an explanation for Kennedy’s embrace of BIO last year, speculating that it might be linked to biotech firm Amgen’s generous pledge to fund an annex to JFK’s presidential library that will bear Kennedy’s name.

But the real explanation for Kennedy’s actions may be far more straightforward: the biotech industry has a burgeoning presence in Massachusetts, and Democratic leaders determined early on that they’d go out of their way to play nice with Big Pharma. And Kennedy wasn’t alone among liberal Senators from biotech-heavy states to swing for the industry, joined by Patty Murray and Barbara Mikulski during the HELP committee negotiations.

The industry’s success in courting liberal Democrats is also probably why BIO is holding its fire in the Coakley-Brown race. Up until now, executives from Amgen and other MA-based biotech firms have actually swung out in support of Coakley as part of a group that’s raised at least $200,000 for her campaign, as the San Francisco Examiner reports. Such support suggests that Coakley could also follow Kennedy’s footsteps by supporting the biotech industry’s interests in the bill, if Big Pharma is still at the negotiating table. At the least, BIO’s ability to span such an ideological spectrum—from Ted Kennedy to Scott Brown—speaks to the drug lobby’s political agility and unwavering hold on Capitol Hill.