- The Washington Times - Monday, June 30, 2003

At 2:38 a.m. Friday, the House passed a prescription-drug benefit for seniors by a razor slim vote of 216-215 — but it was a lot closer than that. Republican leaders had to use Herculean efforts to get the bill passed at all. After the vote had been open for 15 minutes, 20 Republicans were registered as no votes, with one other voting present. In a chamber split on party lines by 229-205 with one Democrat-leaning independent, so many defectors would have spelled doom for this major piece of President Bush’s legislative agenda. To give whips more time to twist arms and cut deals, the vote was held open for an extraordinarily long 45 minutes, finally culminating in passage by one vote. Despite this nail-biter, it is still an uphill battle before prescription-drug subsidies become law.

Much of the opposition to the Republican legislation came from conservatives. Although a few stood their ground on a principled argument that the new entitlement would be an unnecessary expansion of the size of government, 25 of the initial GOP opponents held up passage in an effort to push a plan to bring cheap drugs into America from Canada. As one staffer told us, “These conservatives almost killed a deal to help seniors pay for their medicine in favor of a scheme that would make [their prescription drugs] more dangerous.” This scheme, known as reimportation, would allow U.S.-manufactured drugs to be resold to Americans by Canadians. They are cheaper across the border because pharmaceutical companies have to meet price controls in Canada’s socialized system. Aside from the problem of giving a nod to Canadian health care, House leaders are against this provision because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it cannot certify the safety of drugs once they have left the country, partly as counterfeit medicines could be sent over. As a condition to get her and a few others to switch their votes on Friday, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson extracted a promise to have an outright vote on reimportation in a couple of weeks.

In a strange way, the close vote in the lower chamber actually strengthens the bargaining position of its leaders when they negotiate with senators in conference. As one House leadership aide told us, “There is absolutely no wiggle room in the House because there are no votes to spare.” While the Senate’s prescription-drug bill sailed to passage by a vote of 76-21, it did not contain many of the House reforms that take Medicare in a market-oriented direction. If there is any hope for final passage, the Senate — which traditionally does not tend to yield much to the House — will have to accept many of these reforms. In fact, we’re told that a final bill might not even make it to the House floor if the competitive measures are stripped away in conference. And for good reason. Friday’s close vote had 19 Republican nays, and approximately a dozen more on the fence. If a final bill is watered down, that nay number will grow in step.

Republican leaders narrowly avoided the disastrous defeat of a legislative big-ticket item last week. This was partly because the intensity of opposition within the party was not fully realized. It was also because House Democrats were unified to obstruct the bill, with only nine going against the party line and voting for it. One political wild card for final passage is whether Democratic leaders will continue to obstruct — and if they can maintain party discipline if they choose that course. If a passable product comes out of conference, it is possible that many Democrats will decide it is bad idea to go into next year’s election having voted against a popular drug subsidy for seniors. The big question is if conservatives will come to the same decision.

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