- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 28, 2003

Republicans said yesterday that with both houses of Congress passing prescription-drug plans as part of a Medicare overhaul, they have defused the issue as a wedge for Democrats in the 2004 elections.

“Once this is passed, the voters will see that the Democrats had a president, the Democrats in the Senate controlled it the previous 1 years, Republicans then made a promise we’re going to get this done, and we delivered on a promise,” said Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican and chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is charged with getting Republicans elected to the Senate.

And after the early morning vote yesterday, Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, New York Republican and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, issued a statement headlined: “Democrats lose another issue to the GOP.”

Both the House and Senate passed versions of prescription-drug plans yesterday morning, and the two sides now go to a conference committee to work out the differences. But Republicans say that if they can produce and pass a final compromise, they will have gone a long way to defusing an issue that has dogged them in past elections.

In the 2000 elections, Republicans were at about a 20 percentage point disadvantage to Democrats when voters were asked which party they trusted to deliver on prescription drugs. That shrank to a 2-point deficit by 2002, and by delivering on a bill this year, Republicans say they can cement that trend.

“What you see is a pattern emerging of the Republican Party becoming associated with solutions and results, and the Democratic Party associated with obstruction and politics,” said Jim Dyke, spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

Democrats said it’s not that easy for Republicans.

“I think prescription drugs are owned by Democrats,” said Stan Greenberg, a prominent Democratic pollster. Speaking to reporters Thursday morning, Mr. Greenberg said that with Democrats’ overall lead in the polls on health care issues, voters will know they were instrumental in getting something done.

He and other Democrats point to the “doughnut hole” — a coverage gap in both the House and Senate bills — and say Democrats can make an issue out of that until the gap is closed.

In the House bill, seniors would be responsible for all drug costs when the tab reaches $2,001, until it surpasses $4,900. The Senate’s gap is smaller, from $4,501 to $5,800. But whatever the final gap is, Mr. Greenberg said Democrats will “pretty quickly” begin to talk about filling it.

Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said another problem is that the Medicare coverage doesn’t kick in until 2006. Until then, both bills offer discount cards to seniors.

“It’s hard to believe Republicans are going to go to the electorate and brag about a prescription-drug bill they cobbled together that no one is benefiting from yet,” he said.

But Mr. Allen said Republicans’ bills eliminate the image that was raised in past elections of “an elderly frail woman wrapped up in a sweater, in a cold place and residence, eating meager meals, taking half-doses of medicine to keep her alive and improve her quality of life.”

“This measure addresses that most compelling concern that I have and that is in the mind of most people: That is, low-income seniors having to choose between food and prescription drugs,” he said. “To me, the Democrats would be arguing from a very weak, whiny position.”

Republicans are also excited about the lack of credibility they say some of the Democrats competing for the 2004 presidential nomination have on the issue.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts missed every one of the 35 votes on the bill, while Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut made two votes. Sen. Bob Graham of Florida made 20 votes, and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina made 30 votes.

Mr. Graham missed voting on his own proposed amendment Wednesday, while Mr. Lieberman and Mr. Kerry missed the final-passage vote early yesterday morning. Mr. Graham and Mr. Edwards both voted against the final bill.

In the House, all the action happened during several hours, and both Democratic candidates in the chamber — Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio — voted against the bill.

One danger for Republicans, however, is whether they have angered their conservative base.

Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, who voted against the bill because it didn’t include enough reform to go along with creating a new federal entitlement, said it may well attract voters to the party who haven’t voted Republican in the past. But he said he has heard from conservatives across the country this week who wanted to thank him for his stand against the bill.

“I don’t know if we have accurately calibrated the impact on our base,” Mr. Pence said.

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