- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 25, 2003

The White House and House Republican leaders yesterday tried to stem a revolt by conservative Republicans who are unhappy with the massive Medicare prescription drug bill and are planning to vote against it today.

President Bush, fearing that enough Republicans could join the Democrats to defeat the House bill, presided over a meeting with about a dozen conservatives at the White House yesterday afternoon. House Republican leaders, meanwhile, tried to resolve various concerns raised by party members, including conservatives who feel the bill is a costly entitlement and does not adequately reform Medicare.

But the entreaties by the White House have fallen short for at least some conservatives, who plan to vote against the bill when it comes to the House floor today.

“I’m having a hard time accepting the universal drug benefit — the creation of a new federal entitlement,” said Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, who was at the meeting yesterday, but who still plans to vote against the measure.

Those at the meeting included Mr. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican. Conservatives asked for more time to review the House bill but that request was denied, said Rep. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican.

Mr. DeMint said the meeting was “positive,” but that the bill just doesn’t reform the Medicare program enough, and makes it worse by taking on a costly new drug entitlement. “I can’t add another entitlement to Medicare, risk bankrupting Medicare without adding some of these major reforms,” he said, adding that he would vote against it.

A House Republican aide said there is a “substantial number” of Republicans planning to vote against the bill.

“We’re concerned enough to talk to them a lot; I don’t think there’s any panic,” John Feehery, a spokesman for Mr. Hastert, said yesterday.

Mr. Pence would not speculate on how many Republicans would vote no, saying that some members seemed to be swayed by the White House meeting. And Mr. DeMint predicted that the bill would pass the House because the House Republican leadership will “get enough votes on the Democrat side to offset what they’ll lose on the Republican side.”

The president has asked both chambers to pass a bill before the Fourth of July recess. The Senate has been debating its bill all week, turning back numerous Democratic amendments. The Senate also aims to vote on its bill before the recess, perhaps even today.

“We have an historic opportunity to seize the moment and get a good bill done,” Mr. Bush said yesterday morning after a meeting with congressional Democrats and Republicans.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, who crafted the House bill, warned unhappy conservatives yesterday that if they try to block the $400 billion bill, they are giving up their best shot at reforming Medicare and risk allowing Democrats to create a trillion-dollar program down the road.

“Just say no to this chance. That’s my answer to them,” said Mr. Tauzin of Louisiana. “The Democrats will pass it, and it will be a total government program that will cost a trillion.”

“Vote for something bad or it’s going to get worse? I’m not buying it,” said Mr. DeMint, who said that many Republicans hadn’t even seen the final version of the bill by midday yesterday and feel like they’re being “rushed” into voting for it before July 4.

The administration has been pushing hard for a bill. Mr. Thompson has been at the Capitol the past two days to lobby for passage of a bill. Yesterday morning, in the weekly closed-door meeting of House Republicans, he and party leaders asked members to express their objections to the bill. But sources at the meeting said Mr. Thompson remained firmly supportive of passing a bill.

On Tuesday evening, Mr. Thompson told a gathering of the 60 Plus Association that passing the bill is a necessary first step.

“This is a fantastic step forward,” he said. “It’s not going to solve all the problems, and I don’t want to have any one believe that by passing this it will solve Medicare’s financial problems.

“But this is the first step in a competitive nature that we’re going to be able to improve Medicare this year, get it up and running and go to the next step, and continue to improve it so that we can put it on a financial footing, so that not only 60 Plus seniors are going to be able to get benefits, but all seniors, and also your children and your grandchildren,” Mr. Thompson said.

The House and Senate bills, which would cost $400 billion over 10 years, offer seniors a prescription drug benefit either through private, drug-only plans for those who choose to stay in traditional Medicare, or through a new Medicare option that would use private health groups to deliver comprehensive health coverage.

The House bill would go further in reforming Medicare by requiring traditional Medicare to compete with the private plans starting in 2010, but conservatives say this isn’t good enough. They say that competition should begin immediately.

In addition to working on members of their own party yesterday, House Republican leaders were courting undecided Democrats.

Rep. Jerry F. Costello, Illinois Democrat, said he told Mr. Hastert that he’s still undecided and would like to see whether Republicans allow any other alternative prescription drug proposals to come to the floor. He estimated that about 20 to 30 Democrats were in his camp.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who opposes the bill, said Republican leaders have “problems on the right” and, thus, were appealing to Democrats. She predicted that the bill will face “a very close vote.” As of yesterday afternoon, she said, Republican leaders did not have the votes for the bill, but she added “they have their ways of getting their votes.”

The House Rules Committee was set to meet late yesterday to set the parameters of floor debate and whether Democrats would be allowed to offer their own proposal — which is likely to be a $900 billion government-run prescription drug program they have pushed in the past.

House Republican leaders also have to decide how to handle a group of Republicans who want to offer their own alternative drug proposal, which would give seniors a drug value card. The House bill institutes their drug value card until 2006, but the dissident lawmakers want the option of continuing it after that.

Rep. Charlie Norwood, a Georgia Republican who is one of those members, predicted that leaders would not allow his group to offer the alternative drug-card bill. He said he would be undecided about the final bill.

Meanwhile, the Senate was expected to vote last night to ratify a deal on how to spend an unallocated $12 billion in its bill. The deal would allow Republicans to use $6 billion of that to set up demonstration projects that would allow more competition between private plans than the bill would allow. The government would be allowed to give the private plans more money to beef up their benefits.

Democrats would use the other half of the money to set up demonstration projects that would beef up traditional Medicare by adding benefits, such as chronic care and disease management.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report

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