- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Top Senate Democrats sent a letter yesterday to President Bush criticizing the House version of the Medicare prescription-drug bill and detailing what they will and will not accept in a final bill.

“We have some very significant concerns,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat.

The letter was spearheaded by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and signed by 37 Democrats, including Mr. Daschle.

The Senate passed its Medicare drug proposal 76-21, with the support of many Democrats, including Mr. Daschle and Mr. Kennedy. But Democrats worry the final bill to create a prescription-drug benefit for seniors will look more like the House bill, which passed that chamber by one vote.

One Senate Democratic aide called the House bill, “a purely partisan product,” that “includes a number of provisions designed to mollify the extreme right.”

Democrats said that in addition to the 37 who signed the letter, there were six Democrats who didn’t sign but who voted against the bill on the Senate floor. Combined, they would constitute more than the 40 votes needed to block a final bill.

House Republican leaders, meanwhile, complained that Senate Democrats are laying out their demands before the Medicare drug conference even starts.

“When you draw lines in the sand you get excluded,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.

Senate Democrats are critical of the House bill because it would require traditional Medicare to compete against private health plans under a new setup starting in 2010. Democrats say the setup is designed to boost the private sector while raising seniors’ monthly Medicare premiums — resulting in many of the healthy, wealthier seniors moving to private sector plans.

“It is wrong to legislate a vast social experiment that would raise premiums for Medicare and victimize the oldest and sickest senior citizens,” the letter read.

But Sen. Don Nickles, Oklahoma Republican and one of the Medicare conferees, will push in conference to not only keep the 2010 competition setup in the final bill, but to start it earlier. He and other House and Senate conservatives said increasing competition will force Medicare to become cost efficient.

In late June, more than 40 House Republicans sent a letter to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, warning if the 2010 competition is removed or weakened in conference, they will not support the final bill. Mr. Hastert has said he will fight to keep it in.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said yesterday it is clear that Democrats “are trying to pull it in their direction” and House Republicans are trying to pull the bill the other way.

“I don’t think we know where the conference will come out,” he said.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who crafted the Senate bill, said it will be challenging to appease Republicans without losing bipartisan support.

Senate Democrats also said the final bill must provide a government-run prescription-drug plan to step in if private plans do not cover the entire nation. The House bill does not provide this, but the Senate bill does.

Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, said he will fight to block the final bill if it does not provide a fallback option because many rural areas do not have access to private plans.

Mr. Grassley agreed there should be a government fallback in the final bill, but House Republicans resist such a plan.

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