- The Washington Times - Friday, June 28, 2002

The House last night barely approved a Senate-passed bill that would raise the federal debt limit, sending the proposal to the president's desk despite loud objections from House Democrats.

The proposal, approved 215-214, would provide a $450 billion increase in the current $5.95 trillion cap on federal borrowing. The Democratic-led Senate passed it, 68-29, on June 11.

President Bush had urged Congress to raise the debt limit before it recess for the July Fourth holiday next week.

But House Democrats used the issue to accuse Republicans of fiscal irresponsibility, citing the tax cuts Republicans pushed through last year.

"Our fiscal house is in total disarray," said Rep. Jim Turner, Texas Democrat.

Republicans said the increase was made necessary by the September 11 terrorist attacks and pointed out the bill was authored by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat.

Democrats tried a parliamentary maneuver to change the bill to raise the debt limit by $150 billion for the short term and require that Congress balance the budget. The effort failed, 207-222.

The House then turned to bitter partisan debate over the Republicans' prescription-drug bill, which Republican leaders vowed to pass before the July Fourth recess. A final vote was expected early this morning, after the House passed the rules for debate sought by the Republican leadership late last night on a 218-213 vote.

The bill, estimated to cost $349 billion over 10 years, would create a voluntary prescription-drug program for Medicare beneficiaries and make changes to improve the Medicare program.

"It's one of the great accomplishments of this session," said bill sponsor Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, Connecticut Republican. "And we are going to be proud to pass this today."

Democrats railed against the Republican bill, saying it is a sham, provides inadequate drug coverage and would take a step toward privatizing Medicare by subsidizing insurance companies.

"Make no mistake the contempt for Medicare runs deep within this leadership," Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, New York Democrat, said of Republicans.

Democrats also complained that Republicans did not allow them to present an alternative prescription-drug bill, estimated to cost $800 billion over 10 years.

"The process is one of the most undemocratic I have ever seen," said Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat and ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

While both bills would use private companies to deliver the drug-benefit plans, the Republican bill would give them more flexibility in designing the plans allowing them to pick the drugs that would be covered and to offer their own alternative plan, as long as it is close to the bill's standard. Republicans say this would provide competition, resulting in lower costs for seniors.

Under the Republican plan, beneficiaries would have to meet a $250 deductible. After that, the government would pay 80 percent of a beneficiary's drug costs until they reach $1,000, and 50 percent of the next $1,000. From $2,000 to $3,700, the beneficiary would have to pay all drug costs, at which point the government would pick up the full tab. It would not specify a monthly premium, but the Congressional Budget Office estimates it would be $33 per month.

The Democrats' plan would provide fuller drug coverage. Beneficiaries would pay a $25 monthly premium and a $100 deductible. After that, the government would pay 80 percent of drug costs until a senior's drug cost reaches $2,000, at which point the government would pick up the full tab.

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