- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2003

The pressure is on Congress to create a Medicare prescription-drug benefit for seniors this year, and Senate Republicans said they hope to do that with a bill they plan to move through committee next week and to the Senate floor the following week.

“I’m very hopeful that we can pass a plan out of the United States Senate … before July 1,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said yesterday, adding, “This is a huge, huge challenge.”

The Senate needs the support of several Democrats to get the 60 votes necessary to pass. Mr. Frist, Tennessee Republican, said this means leaders will have to combine the best ideas from Republicans, Democrats and the House. The bill will be on the Senate floor for two weeks, he said.

House Republicans also are negotiating the details of their bill and hope to move it through committee soon, although no date has been set. House Republican aides said it seems unlikely that the House bill will move this week.

House Democratic Whip Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland said House Republicans have decided to let the Senate act first on the issue.

The House has passed prescription-drug legislation in the last two sessions, but the Senate has failed to do so.

The Senate Finance Committee chairman, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, has been working with a bipartisan group of senators to craft the bill. Sen. John B. Breaux, Louisiana Democrat and a key player in the negotiating group, wants the committee to hold a hearing on the proposal this week, before it is voted on.

President Bush and congressional Republicans have set aside $400 billion over 10 years to create a prescription-drug benefit and to revamp Medicare in the process. They want to give people choices of private plans outside of government-run Medicare.

To encourage seniors to choose the private plans, President Bush wants to offer a more robust prescription-drug benefit under Enhanced Medicare, while seniors who stay in traditional Medicare would only receive some help with drug costs. That proposal met stiff resistance on Capitol Hill, and several lawmakers said it would not make it through.

A Senate Democratic aide said that Mr. Breaux and others would favor something similar to the president’s proposal, but that politically this is not possible. The aide said the Senate Finance Committee’s bill likely will have a drug benefit that is basically the same regardless of whether a senior stays in traditional Medicare or moves to a private plan.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said he is hopeful the Senate can pass something, but warned that the proposal must not have what he said were the same shortcomings as last year’s Republican plan. Among other things, he said, that plan did not provide continuous drug coverage for seniors throughout the year and did not guarantee coverage to people in rural areas.

Democrats argue the president wants to privatize Medicare, and Mr. Hoyer said he expects the House Republican proposal to be “very similar to last year’s and to the president’s proposal.”

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