WASHINGTON — The resignation of an influential lobbyist who positioned the pharmaceutical industry firmly behind health care reform presents another complication for Democratic leaders as they struggle to keep the effort from falling apart amid a tide of political setbacks.
W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, a former Louisiana congressman, announced Friday that he is retiring at the end of June as head of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which became a pivotal backer of health care legislation after reaching a deal with the White House aimed at limiting damage to the industry.
PhRMA, as the group is known, became a lightning rod for criticism from both right and left, as each side questioned the group's motives and accused the Obama administration of giving too many concessions to drugmakers in exchange for their promise to absorb $80 billion in cuts.
Tauzin's backing of reform efforts also prompted grumbling among some of PhRMA's corporate members, who feared he was offering up too much in the bargain. But Tauzin said in an interview Friday that the group has "no regrets whatsoever" about taking an active role in the health care debate.
"I don't think health care reform would have gotten into the conference position if we hadn't been there," Tauzin said, referring to passage of separate bills in the House and Senate. "We believe what we did is exactly correct. Our purpose was to be at the table and be as constructive as we could be."
Tauzin said PhRMA will continue to be involved in the debate on Capitol Hill, and he dismissed widespread speculation that his resignation was a result of political fallout from the stalled health care negotiations. Tauzin, a 66-year-old cancer survivor, said he promised to stay about five years when he went to work for PhRMA in 2005.
"It has nothing to do with the health care debate," he said. His resignation doesn't come until summer.
Tauzin, a quintessential Washington power broker, parlayed a 26-year career in the House into the $2 million-a-year job at PhRMA. Tauzin was one of the founders of the Blue Dogs — a group of conservative Democrats that played a pivotal role in last year's health care negotiations — and then switched to the Republican Party after the GOP's 1994 takeover of Congress.
He came under sharp criticism for taking the job at PhRMA shortly after helping push through a costly Medicare prescription drug package, which was a boon to drugmakers. Tauzin said he took the position in part because of the role that experimental drugs played in helping him survive a battle with intestinal cancer.
PhRMA, one of the largest health care organizations in Washington, spent more than $26 million on lobbying last year and has contributed more than $200,000 to federal candidates, mostly Democrats, since 2007.
AstraZeneca chief executive David Brennan, who currently serves as PhRMA's chairman, praised Tauzin in a statement for "strong leadership and many accomplishments," including "efforts to bring about health care reform."