- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 5, 2002

The Medicare prescription drug issue was supposed to pack a wallop in the midterm congressional elections, but this potential electoral bombshell may end up a political dud.

Three reasons explain this reversal of fortune Republican strategy, Senate Democratic disarray and shifting concerns among seniors.

First, House Republicans inoculated themselves by passing a $320 billion prescription drug bill in late June. Earlier this year, many insiders believed prescription drug politics was risky business for Republicans. They guessed a carefully crafted Democrat package might attract enough Republican votes to embarrass the GOP leadership, thus solidifying the Democrats' advantage.

But Republicans went on offense, formulating a broader-than-expected bill, covering 80 percent of all front-end drug costs and providing total catastrophic coverage for expenses exceeding $3,700. For their part, House Democrats swung for the fences, offering a bloated $973 billion package that seemed out of whack with today's fiscal realities. The House defeated the Democratic proposal on a largely party line vote.

Next, it was the Senate's turn. And if House Republicans inoculated themselves, Senate Democrat leaders misdiagnosed the situation. Many thought they would follow the lead of their brethren in the House, offering a sweeping plan daring Senate Republicans to vote no.

But two factors complicated the picture. First, the current Senate budget rules require 60 votes to overcome a procedural point of order and pass any Medicare prescription drug bill a tall order in a closely divided Senate. This arcane budget rule may take an interesting twist on Oct. 1, when the next fiscal year begins more on that in a moment.

Second, Senate Democrats behaved differently than their House counterparts. A Democrat lobbyist told me it's because of a major generational conflict brewing within the party. "Many of the 'new Democrats' can't conceive of forcing Generation X-ers to pay for a new multibillion dollar entitlement program for aging baby-boomers," he observed.

Others blamed Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle for the Democrats' predicament. "He totally mismanaged the floor," said a White House official. "A bipartisan bill with 60 votes would have killed us."

What ever the reasons, Senate Democratic leaders were scattered like spilled aspirin, and failed to convince a majority of their party to support a broad Medicare prescription drug bill that provided universal coverage, like the one offered by their colleagues in the House. Ironically, instead of offering a mammoth universal benefit package, many Senate Democrats supported Sen. Bob Graham's amendment that included a higher catastrophic threshold than the House Republican plan. The Graham amendment, one wag noted, "six months ago could have been crafted in the Republican Conference."

Finally, consider senior citizens this summer. Elderly Americans have neither been inoculated, nor misdiagnosed they're just jittery and mad. Stock market gyrations have eclipsed their worries about the cost of prescription drugs. Suddenly, seniors are very nervous about the stability of their retirement savings and what that could mean for their future and their children and grandchildren's futures. All summer, in town halls across the country, the market slide and economic sluggishness trumped talk about Medicare prescription drugs.

Have Republicans found safe harbor on this issue? Perhaps. But there are still a couple of tricky shoals to navigate. Over the next few weeks, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate Finance Committee will try to cobble together a bipartisan bill. Most knowledgeable people believe this effort will fail. But if it succeeds, and is managed adroitly, neither side should be able to use it as a partisan battering ram.

Next, the Senate budget procedure may come into play again. In what some on the Hill are already calling the "October Surprise," a little-known procedural issue, may have a major impact on the prescription drug debate. When fiscal 2003 begins on Oct. 1, because the Senate has not passed a budget for fiscal '03, the 60-vote threshold no longer applies and any bill or amendment can pass with only 51 votes.

Word is Mr. Daschle will bring another version of the prescription drug bill to the floor after Oct. 1, hoping to pass a Democratic proposal with 51 votes. But Republicans with close ties to the GOP leadership tell me that is a risky strategy. Without the 60-vote point of order, any amendment, including repeal of the death tax or other popular GOP tax cut ideas, could also pass as amendments with only 51 votes. Senate Democrats may not want to play that game.

The political playbook on prescription drugs has changed dramatically. Crafty GOP legislative moves, lack of consensus among Democrats and market realities have transformed the issue from one of this year's major political fire drills into an electoral false alarm.

Gary J. Andres holds a Ph.D. in public policy and is a senior managing partner with the Dutko Group a D.C. based government relations company. A former White House senior lobbyist, he writes every Thursday for The Washington Times on politics and policy.

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