- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Conservatives in the House have major concerns about the chamber’s Medicare prescription drug bill, expected to come to the floor tomorrow, and some say it would be better to join with Democrats to defeat the measure rather than to pass it as written.

“I’m planning to vote no,” said Rep. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican. “I’m convinced this is a prescription for socialized medicine. … I want to change it or stop it.”

“I believe the conservatives in the House are the last line of defense,” said Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican. “This is the vote. This is the last time to stop it.”

Mr. Pence said he was told by the White House there is a group of about 20-to-25 Republicans who share his views. A senior administration official said the number is lower, plus there are Democrats who will support the bill.

“We’re confident that the House will pass it,” the official said on the condition of anonymity, adding that the White House will meet with House leaders today.

But Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, said there are “enough people that are concerned right now to stop it.”

Mr. DeMint said Medicare is not working, and the House bill makes it worse by adding another costly promise of prescription drugs. Mr. Flake said the bill’s Medicare reforms are “far too little.”

Congressional leaders have committed $400 billion for the House and Senate bills, which would offer seniors prescription drug benefits either through private, drug-only plans for those who choose to stay in traditional Medicare or through a new Medicare option that would use private health groups to deliver comprehensive health coverage. The House bill goes further, requiring traditional Medicare to compete against the private plans starting in 2010, but conservatives say this is not good enough.

“One more massive federal entitlement is, simply put, one more disaster,” said Mr. Pence, who wants a drug benefit only for the poorest seniors.

Sen. Trent Lott — who is not happy with the Senate bill for some of the same reasons — said House Republican leaders may have trouble.

“I think the House was surprised at the number of ‘no’ votes their whip check revealed,” said Mr. Lott, Mississippi Republican.

Burson Taylor, spokeswoman for House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, acknowledged that leaders were still working to get the votes they need, but “expect to get there before the bill gets to the floor.”

She said members have various concerns, including the bill’s effect on rural districts, its cost, and whether they can add a provision allowing prescription drugs to be reimported from other countries where they are sold cheaper.

It’s a tougher situation than in past years, she said, because members know this is the only time to address their concerns. In the past, House members could vote for a prescription drug benefit knowing it would not make it through the Senate, she said.

Rep. Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican and chief deputy majority whip, said it’s a complex bill, and that leaders are educating members. He said the House bill will pass and will be “the first step towards reforming Medicare.”

Meanwhile, senators were close to reaching a deal on how to utilize an unallocated $12 billion in their Medicare bill. Under an agreement being discussed late yesterday, half the money would be used by Republicans to set up demonstration projects in certain areas of the country to beef up private health plans by allowing them to compete freely with each other for seniors’ business.

The other $6 billion would be used by Democrats to set up demonstrations to beef up traditional Medicare by offering extra benefits, such as disease management. Democrats want to ensure that seniors are not enticed into private plans.

Senators passed a Democratic amendment yesterday stating that members of Congress enrolled in a federal health plan could not have better benefits than those provided to seniors.

The Senate turned back several Democratic amendments yesterday, including one to beef up the bill’s drug benefit and one to give employers more incentives to continue providing their retirees with health benefits after the bill takes effect.

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