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News brief: Blinken attends ASEAN meeting, Viktor Orbán, curtailing drug prices

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan is increasing tension in the region. Today, China launched several missiles during unprecedented military drills around the island.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken will have to manage the diplomatic fallout. He's in Cambodia for a regional gathering of Southeast Asian nations. His Chinese counterpart is also there.

FADEL: NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen is traveling with the secretary and joins us now from Phnom Penh. Good morning, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So is Blinken expected to meet with China's top diplomat?

KELEMEN: So no plans for a one-on-one meeting. But, you know, there are likely to be some awkward or possibly very testy encounters there at the meeting. Secretary Blinken spent 5 hours with Foreign Minister Wang Yi last month in Bali. And we're told that he even discussed the possibility of a Pelosi trip then. Blinken has been arguing that the visit was not a sign that U.S. policy on Taiwan has changed. It wasn't the first visit by a speaker of the House. Newt Gingrich went to Taiwan. Though, that was some 25 years ago. Blinken's also argued that China's recent activities show that it's trying to change the status quo on Taiwan, not the U.S. He's likely to hammer home that message here in Cambodia and try to put the onus on China for the escalation in tensions right now.

FADEL: How is that argument being received in the region?

KELEMEN: You know, countries in the region are nervous. They want the U.S. and China to manage their relationship, to not let this get out of hand. They're clearly alarmed by the ongoing Chinese military exercises in response to Pelosi's visit. The ASEAN foreign ministers - this is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - they put out a statement today saying they're worried about the potential for miscalculation and confrontation among major powers. They said there could be unpredictable consequences. And, you know, there's just a lot of other issues that they really want to focus on - things like trade, COVID, Myanmar, where military leaders just executed four political opponents. There's a lot going on. And you add to that the food and energy crisis...

FADEL: Right.

KELEMEN: ...That's exacerbated by Russia's war in Ukraine.

FADEL: Speaking of that, Russia's foreign minister is also there. Will Blinken meet him?

KELEMEN: Yeah. Again, no plans to meet Sergey Lavrov, who, by the way, arrived in Cambodia from Myanmar. Lavrov was there, all smiles with that country's ruling junta, which wasn't invited to the ASEAN meeting - another source of tension there. But Blinken and Lavrov did speak by phone last week. Blinken's approach has been that if there's something specific to talk to the Russians about, he will. Last week, it was about the U.N.-brokered deal to get food shipments out of Ukraine and also the possibility of a prisoner swap that could see the U.S. releasing a major Russian arms dealer in exchange for WNBA star Brittney Griner and ex-Marine Paul Whelan. That deal is still on the table. The U.S. is waiting for a serious response from the Russians. There are closing arguments in the Griner case today. So perhaps there could be a verdict as early as this week. And perhaps that could move things along.

FADEL: That's NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen in Cambodia, traveling with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Thank you.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: A meeting of some of the most powerful figures in right-wing politics kicks off today in Dallas. Their headline speaker is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

MARTINEZ: He has drawn sharp condemnation across the globe for his anti-democratic moves inside Hungary and most recently for a speech in which he said, quote, "we do not want to become peoples of mixed race." His now former aide described the speech as pure Nazi text. He's also gotten a lot of praise from several prominent Republicans in the U.S., especially in the conservative media.

FADEL: NPR's David Folkenflik joins us now. Hi, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So first, if you could just explain what the Conservative Political Action Convention is and why it matters?

FOLKENFLIK: So it's an offshoot of the American Conservative Union. And it would argue that it's sort of the conservative part of America's main conservative party, the right wing of the Republican Party. These conventions energize a certain class of donor, a certain kind of activist. It allows major politicians on the right to serve up red meat to true believers, as well as personalities to build up their followers.

FADEL: So tell us more about Orban. What's he done in Hungary?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, the first thing Orban has done in Hungary is really consolidate popularity and power. He's won a series of elections in a row - just won, I believe, his fourth straight term a bit earlier this year as prime minister. And he's done it by making an appeal to an idea of a white, an explicitly Christian nation in Hungary, one in which he has actually really built up borders, preventing migrants from coming in except under really stringent rules. He has done so by targeting perceived and identified enemies of the state, figures including the liberal Hungarian American billionaire and philanthropist George Soros. And he's done it by really pushing back on the independence of the press, buying off a lot of the media and also really starving much of the rest of it and other independent outfits. So you've heard places like Freedom House say that they still have free elections in Hungary, but not particularly fair ones.

FADEL: And how has this leader of a small, Central European country become so popular and revered in Republican circles?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think you'd have to look at his popularity in two classes of folks, the media and politicians. In the media, you've seen a number of influential voices in conservative, right-wing media - particularly Fox News' Tucker Carlson - fully embrace Orban as a figure who provides a vision for how conservatives can win and govern. Tucker Carlson has gone to Hungary. Tucker Carlson has done a full documentary on him. And he said, this is a guy who understands the importance of culture, understands the importance of families and understands, in reality, a kind of vision of society that appeal to a white version of Americans decades ago. And similarly, Donald Trump has embraced Orban as the kind of strong figure, a kind of figure with autocrat leanings and autocratic rhetoric that he wants to see in himself.

FADEL: Now, this is a leader that's described as anti-democratic. What should we take note of here that he's so popular in Republican circles?

FOLKENFLIK: I think it's notable that this offshoot in the American Conservative Union has invited him to kick off their convention - and, in fact, that they staged an earlier convention in Hungary just a few months ago as a way of affirming the role that he holds for them. I think it's a way of acknowledging they see the question being fought out in Republican circles. Does it still want to be the party of Donald Trump? And even if they don't want to be the party of Donald Trump, do they still want to be the party of Trumpism? Orban suggests a path for future Republican leaders of embracing Trumpism without being Trump himself. And I think we should take note that that's still a major part of the Republican discourse.

FADEL: NPR's David Folkenflik. Thank you so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: High prescription drug prices have been a hot political talking point for years. And now, Democrats look like they may be about to make some progress.

MARTINEZ: That's thanks to some provisions in the Reduce Inflation Act that's working its way through the Senate. Critics say the measure will slow innovation, while supporters argue it will provide relief from high out-of-pocket drug costs at the pharmacy counter.

FADEL: NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin is here to talk to us about that. Hi, Sydney.

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So Sydney, what kinds of drug pricing changes are in the bill? And why is it getting so much attention?

LUPKIN: So the big thing everyone is talking about is Medicare drug price negotiation.

FADEL: Right.

LUPKIN: Officially, Medicare had been barred from directly negotiating drug prices. But starting in 2026, assuming this bill becomes law, Medicare can negotiate 10 drug prices. And then in 2027, it can negotiate 15. And by 2029, it can negotiate 20. Though, we don't know specifically which drugs just yet.

FADEL: OK. So it's not that Medicare would be able to negotiate all drug prices, right?

LUPKIN: That's right. So these are only high-cost drugs that are covered under Medicare Parts D or B, meaning they're retail prescription drugs or administered by a physician. And they have to have been on the market for a while to be eligible for negotiation. For some drugs, it's nine years and for others, it's 13. And again, we still don't know which drugs they'll choose. But the bill is still progress on drug prices that we really haven't seen in years. Here's Stacie Dusetzina of Vanderbilt University.

STACIE DUSETZINA: You know, it really does break a lot of new ground and fix a lot of problems that we either identified or created by accident over the years. And so I think from a - how big of a deal is this? - it's a huge deal.

FADEL: OK. So what else does the bill do?

LUPKIN: Well, it makes drug manufacturers pay a rebate if they increase prices above inflation. It would also make vaccines free for Medicare beneficiaries. That would start next year. And it would do a few more things, like capping out-of-pocket prescription drug spending at $2,000. So that's not going to affect everybody. But it's going to wind up being a big help for seniors, who need high-price specialty drugs for things like rheumatoid arthritis or cancer. So on top of helping seniors, all told, the reforms would save the government around $288 billion over the next 10 years. That's according to the Congressional Budget Office, which looked at an earlier version of the bill.

FADEL: OK. So this all sounds pretty good. What do the drug makers say about it?

LUPKIN: They do not like it. The head of the trade group for branded drugs, PhRMA, called it a historic mistake last week. The general argument here is that the bill would stifle innovation and mean fewer new drugs will get developed and make it to consumers. Tricia Neuman of the Kaiser Family Foundation says those fears are overblown.

TRICIA NEUMAN: PhRMA has been making the case that the legislation will decimate research and development. And it will mean cures for cancer will not come to market. And, you know, that's certainly scary. We all want cures for cancer. We all want cures for Alzheimer's disease. But the truth is, CBO is predicting it will have a very modest impact.

LUPKIN: So in this case, the Congressional Budget Office says about 15 drugs won't make it to market over the next 30 years as a result of the bill. But that's out of 1,300 drugs. So most drugs will still make it to market.

FADEL: That was Sydney Lupkin, NPR's pharmaceuticals correspondent. Thanks, Sydney.

LUPKIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.