- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

The top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee reached an agreement yesterday on legislation to create a Medicare prescription-drug benefit. Members are expected to critique the deal at a committee hearing today.

“This is truly a landmark decision for our senior citizens,” Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, said yesterday.

“The stars are in alignment this year,” said the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana. “We can’t squander this opportunity.”

The deal, which was still in preliminary form and subject to changes, would dedicate $400 billion over 10 years to create a prescription-drug benefit under traditional Medicare, as well as a new option for seniors called Medicare Advantage.

That option would create private health plans run by preferred provider options, or PPOs. The drug benefit would be equivalent under both. The plans would start in 2006, and seniors would receive a drug-discount card until then.

President Bush and some Republicans wanted to provide a more robust drug plan under the new private option to entice seniors to move there.

An administration official said that is still their position, but the Grassley-Baucus deal is “real progress” and has “a good shot” of attracting bipartisan support in the Senate.

A statement from the White House press office said the president is “encouraged by today’s agreement” and “will continue to work with Congress to pass Medicare reform this year.”

Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, said he too would like to see a difference in drug benefit, like the president wants. But he said despite this and other concerns, he is willing to support it for now, as “a good starting point.”

Key negotiators of the deal included Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, as well as several members of the Finance Committee, including John B. Breaux, Louisiana Democrat; James M. Jeffords, Vermont independent; and Republicans Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said the deal “assures every elderly American that they will have reliable coverage for the exorbitant cost of their prescription drugs, without being forced to give up the Medicare they love.”

He added, however, that Democrats would continue to fight for more money for the drug benefit.

But Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said the plan “falls significantly short” of what Democrats want.

Democrats complain that Republicans are trying to weaken Medicare and move people to the private sector. Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, said Republicans were trying to create a “two-tiered system” with the PPO plan.

While Mr. Daschle said Democrats would try to amend the measure on the Senate floor, Finance Committee member Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, said he would like to put a hold on the bill — preventing it from coming to the floor. He said Republicans are trying to rush it through the Senate.

Mr. Grassley could not say whether he has the vote in committee because he is still waiting on cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, which could lead to changes.

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