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Drug industry lobbyist Billy Tauzin to resign

Billy Tauzin, the chief lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry who forged a private deal with the Obama administration to push the healthcare overhaul forward, will announce his resignation Friday, further complicating the outlook for passage of comprehensive legislation this year.

Tauzin, a garrulous former Louisiana congressman, has been considered a brilliant and bold negotiator, particularly in mid-2009 when he cut a deal with the White House to back the healthcare overhaul that once seemed all but inevitable.

But he has come under increasing fire as the health initiative stalled on Capitol Hill following the Republicans’ surprise Senate victory in Massachusetts last month that denied the Democrats a filibuster-proof majority.

It is in this new environment that Tauzin will announce his resignation, effective June 30.

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Tauzin, a cancer survivor, said in a prepared statement to be released Friday that he is leaving his post voluntarily after nearly 5 1/2 years because he wants to “explore the many other interests I would like to pursue in this special second-chance life.”

A source close to Tauzin, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about the matter, said Tauzin was asked to stay by a majority of the board members of the pharmaceutical industry group that he heads, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA. The source said that Tauzin’s decision to leave was strictly personal.

Tauzin, however, has been under fire from the left and the right of the political spectrum -- and from many of his fellow business lobbyists, of whom he was perhaps the highest paid, with compensation of more than $2 million a year.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations that opposed the administration’s approach to overhauling healthcare were unhappy that Tauzin had cut a deal with the White House and congressional Democrats, undermining the business coalition.

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There were a few other prominent trade associations that also worked with the White House, including the Business Roundtable and the National Restaurant Assn.

But Tauzin’s close relations with Democrats was the earliest and most influential of the White House business alliances.

The White House eagerly negotiated with Tauzin starting last January in part because officials understood that the drug companies could play a significant role in either passing or defeating healthcare legislation.

Tauzin offered political and financial support for the president’s healthcare initiative, a remarkable shift considering that drug companies spent vigorously to oppose President Clinton’s proposed healthcare overhaul.

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Behind closed doors, Tauzin agreed to support the overhaul and provide $80 billion in savings to the Treasury over 10 years.

In exchange, he won a promise from the White House and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) that the government would not impose further penalties on the industry, including a pledge to oppose legislation that would allow the government to negotiate prices with drug companies, something now prohibited by a law Tauzin helped pass. President Obama, when he was running for office, had criticized Tauzin’s role in passing that rule.

Tauzin said he also received a White House promise not to pursue another proposal Obama had backed during the campaign: importing cheaper drugs from Canada or Europe.

The two proposals could cost the industry billions, undermine its ability to develop new cures and, in the case of imports, possibly compromise safety, industry officials contend.

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The deal-making left House liberals, including Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), fuming.

In addition to pledging budget savings, Tauzin’s trade association agreed to help underwrite a multimillion-dollar TV advertising campaign touting comprehensive healthcare legislation.

Republicans on Capitol Hill were livid that Tauzin’s group had “joined the other team,” as one influential conservative put it.

That anger has turned to threats of retribution against drug company lobbyists as Republicans hope for significant gains in the 2010 midterm elections.

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tom.hamburger @latimes.com


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