- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2003

Top Senate Democrats last night threw their support behind the Medicare prescription-drug bill as both the House and Senate stood on the brink of passing separate bills to make the most sweeping changes to Medicare since its creation in 1965.

“It is a first step, and I will support it,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat. His counterpart in the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, conceded earlier yesterday that Republicans would get their way in her chamber.

Mr. Daschle couched his support in several complaints about the bill, and said the prescription-drug benefit must be improved, but he added that “we simply can’t allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.”

The Senate bill was expected to pass late last night or early this morning with bipartisan support, including top Democrats such as Mr. Daschle and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

“It’s a good bill and a good first step. … I think we’ve produced a real benefit,” said Sen. Gordon H. Smith, Oregon Republican.

Some Senate conservatives, however, complained about the bill.

“I find this bill is very expensive and very light on reforms,” said Sen. Don Nickles, Oklahoma Republican.

Senate consideration of the bill was interrupted last night by news of former Sen. Strom Thurmond’s death, and several members made speeches about the South Carolina Republican.

Meanwhile, the House was also expected to pass its bill early this morning, with some conservatives opposing it. The majority of Republicans would vote for it and the majority of Democrats would vote against it, Republican leaders said.

“We all know, at the end of the day, they will have the number of Republican votes they need to pass the bill,” said Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat and staunch opponent of the Republican measure.

Congress has set aside $400 billion over 10 years to overhaul Medicare and add a drug benefit for the 40 million elderly and disabled in the program.

Both the House and Senate bills would offer seniors a prescription-drug benefit 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 companies to deliver comprehensive health coverage. Both bills would provide extra help to low-income seniors.

They differ in several key ways. Most notably, the House bill would go further in reforming Medicare by requiring the program to compete against private plans starting in 2010.

Supporters of this approach say competition will force Medicare to be more efficient and reduce health care costs, while most Democrats say it is designed to drain seniors from Medicare and into the private sector.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, praised the House bill, which he said, “lifts the financial burden off [seniors] backs so they can stay well and improve their quality of life.”

“In passing this bill … we will renew America’s promise to our seniors, reduce the cost of prescription drugs and revolutionize medicine for the 21st century,” said Rep. Deborah Pryce, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Republican Conference.

The Senate cleared one of its major hurdles yesterday when senators reached a deal on how to spend an unallocated $12 billion in their bill.

Members adopted an amendment 71-26 that would let Republicans use $6 billion of that to set up demonstration projects that would allow increased competition between private plans. The government could give the private plans more money to beef up their benefits.

Democrats would use the other half of the money to set up demonstration projects that would beef up Medicare by adding benefits, such as chronic care and disease management.

But House Republican leaders have had considerable trouble with conservative party members opposing the bill, and President Bush called a group of them to the White House on Wednesday to seek their support.

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, said the meeting was successful in persuading some of the wayward conservatives to get on board.

Conservatives opposing the bill say it creates a costly new government entitlement and that the drug benefit should only go to seniors who truly need it, instead of everyone in Medicare. They also say the bill should have tougher Medicare reforms, such as starting the 2010 competition sooner.

“So long as it’s a universal drug benefit, it will be the biggest new federal entitlement since 1965. And I cannot and will not support it,” said Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican.

“I am ultimately unable to support the bill because I am concerned that the drug provision will grow into an uncontrollable entitlement,” said Rep. Charlie Norwood, Georgia Republican.

Mr. Pence said many of his Republican colleagues were supporting the bill because they believe promises from the White House that it will “get better” down the line when it is in conference with the Senate bill.

But other Republicans said the bill already makes progress toward reforming Medicare and that now is the time to pass a bill.

“It’s important for Republicans to deliver. We campaigned on this,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican.

Mr. Kingston also said if House Republicans didn’t pass their bill, they would be stuck with the Senate version, which many Republicans think does too little to encourage private-sector competition.

House Democrats, meanwhile, railed against the bill, which they said was an attempt by Republicans to destroy Medicare by enticing seniors into the private sector. They also said the bill offers too little help with seniors’ drug costs and that private plans could alter the monthly premiums seniors would pay.

“The House Republicans’ prescription-drug bill is an unflinching betrayal of America’s seniors,” said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.

“It destroys Medicare as we now know it,” said Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat.

House Democrats were set to offer their own proposal last night that would create a government-run prescription-drug plan that would cost at least $800 billion over 10 years. It was widely expected to fail.

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