- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2003

Fresh on the heels of passing a major tax cut, Congress returns to Washington this week to work on a prescription-drug benefit program, what some congressional aides are calling the other major vote of the 108th Congress.

President Bush told Congress last week, as he was signing the $350 billion tax-cut package, that he expects action on Medicare.

“The biggest threat to economic security of our seniors is the affordability of prescription drugs,” he said. “We must make available a prescription-drug benefit to all our seniors, and we must assure that the commitments of Medicare are kept to every future generation of Americans.”

After several consecutive Congresses that have not passed prescription-drug plans, Republicans say they must pass something this year to take into the 2004 elections.

The House has passed bills the past two Congresses, but the Senate has not. Last year, under Democratic control, the Senate couldn’t get a bill onto the floor.

Congress’ budget for this year calls for $400 billion during 10 years for a program to modernize Medicare and provide a prescription-drug benefit.

Earlier this year, the administration floated a proposal to revamp the system by offering a trade: prescription drugs in exchange for recipients’ moving into a managed-care plan. But both Democrats and Republicans in Congress criticized the plan, and House and Senate committees are working on plans of their own.

Time is running out, though. A summer recess looms at the end of July and, with four senators and two members of the House running for the Democratic nomination for president, members expect presidential politics to rule out much heavy legislative lifting in the fall.

Therefore, leaders want to have a Medicare bill through a House-Senate conference on the president’s desk by the end of July.

The House will vote this week on bills to ban “partial-birth” abortion and on a constitutional amendment that would give Congress the right to ban flag burning.

For their part, senators return this week to find the energy bill facing them once again, and they will dive right into amendments to double the use of ethanol-blended gasoline and to expand fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles.

The House has passed an energy bill — though it includes an amendment allowing drilling in part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, something the Senate has never passed. Any differences will have to be worked out in conference.

Beneath all the legislative action in the Senate, senators must also grapple with a series of contested judicial nominations such as Carolyn Kuhl, whom Mr. Bush has nominated to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Michael Chertoff, who was nominated to the 3rd Circuit.

Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican and Rules Committee chairman, will convene a hearing on Republicans’ proposed rules change that would help them break the two pending filibusters on Miguel Estrada, Mr. Bush’s nominee to the D.C. Circuit appeals court, and Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen, who was nominated to the 5th Circuit.

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