- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2000

The House last night approved a Republican-supported prescription drug plan after a day packed with partisan bickering that featured Democrats stalking off the floor in protest.

The bill was approved by a vote of 217-214 that largely followed party lines.

"It is time to modernize Medicare by adding a prescription drug benefit so that all seniors can get the chance to enjoy their golden years," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican.

Parliamentary protests delayed until about 9 p.m. a vote on the Republican-supported $39.7 billion bill, which would establish a voluntary prescription drug plan for the country's 40 million Medicare recipients.

Democrats freely acknowledged that they were playing games with the bill, which addresses a subject that has become an important election issue, eclipsing even education in some polls.

Republicans were clearly frustrated by yesterday's delays.

"They didn't walk out on us, they walked out on seniors," said Rep. Deborah Pryce, Ohio Republican.

The bill was one of the most heavily disputed yet this year, erupting into a virtual war on the House floor with Democrats plumbing their medical analogies to disparage the plan.

"It is bad medicine," said Rep. Robert I. Wexler, Florida Democrat. "The Republicans are guilty of political malpractice."

Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, Rhode Island Democrat and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the plan was about "empty promises and empty pill jars."

Democrats staged their first walkout in the House since the 1998 impeachment hearings, chanting "work, work" as they traipsed out of the chamber around 10:30 a.m.

Showing considerable preparation and some prescience around 25 of the protesting Democrats gathered on the east steps of the Capitol and staved off the rain by holding bright yellow golf umbrellas emblazoned with the word "shame" in black letters.

Noting the umbrellas, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, said, "They've been planning their circus for a long time."

Democrats were angered that Republicans refused to allow debate on their own plan, which would cost an estimated $100 billion over five years.

Democrats made use of a host of delaying procedures that included several motions to adjourn, objections to the use of graphics employed by the Republican plan's proponents. In addition, they took the unusual step of requiring the text of their 78-page alternative be read aloud from the House podium.

The tactics stretched the debate from 10 a.m. until well after nightfall.

At an afternoon press conference, President Clinton disparaged the Republican bill, calling it an "empty promise for too many of our seniors."

"It's a private insurance plan that many seniors and people with disabilities simply won't be able to afford," Mr. Clinton said. "Insurers themselves say the Republican plan won't work."

The president this week offered congressional Republicans his support of the party's marriage penalty tax cuts in exchange for their support of a Medicare prescription drug plan he has proposed.

The Republican plan would allow government subsidy for private insurers at a cost of up to $40 billion over the next five years, and estimated at $159 billion over 10 years. Participation would be voluntary.

The plan would combine the two deductibles now paid by recipients, which total $876 a year, into one deductible of $675. This would include all hospitalization and medicine.

It also includes a stop-loss provision, which means that a beneficiary spends a designated amount and the insurance plan covers the rest. Medicare carries a traditional fee-for-service arrangement.

Mr. Clinton's $264 billion, 10-year proposal covers both prescription drugs and provider payment reimbursements.

The plan would provide participants with $2,000 in total drug spending annually, gradually rising to $5,000 as premiums increase. That means Medicare would pay an annual maximum of $1,000 in prescription costs at first, rising to $2,500.

Beginning in 2002, a catastrophic plan would pay for 50 percent of a patient's out-of-pocket expenses up to $4,000 and 100 percent after that.

The president's plan would have no deductible and is also optional.

Both provide coverage for low-income participants. The recognized poverty level is $11,250 annual income for a couple.

The administration has criticized the Republican plan for its use of a deductible when even a meager sum can be significant to impoverished retirees.

The Republican plan took shape after some rancorous late-night brainstorming sessions. The inner-party conflict remained evident during floor discussions yesterday.

Rep. Greg Ganske, Iowa Republican, said lawmakers should further mull over the bill this week.

"Both plans are flawed," Mr. Ganske said. "I hope we address this issue in a more thoughtful way."

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