- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2003

Majority Leader Bill Frist is setting aside a month for the Senate to hammer out a bill that will provide prescription drugs for seniors. The more conservative House Republican conference is trying to cobble together a prescription-drug package too, though many members still are not sure whether passage would be a good or a bad thing. The importance of the legislation adds up to more than the sum total of its legal provisions. Success on this issue could be the turning point to a permanent Republican majority.

A few major events have to occur before the government starts picking up the tab for seniors’ drugs. Internally, Republican strategists — such as Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas in the House, and Mr. Frist and Finance Chair Charles Grassley in the Senate — have to structure a deal that covers their varied political and ideological expectations. Getting these strong-willed individuals on the same page will prove a difficult task, as will winning the votes to form a compromise of the House and Senate versions. All of this then has to pass muster with the White House.

There are some barriers already. A bipartisan Senate bill and the working Thomas version are likely to surpass the previously agreed price tag of $400 billion over 10 years, which will increase resistance from deficit hawks and those opposed on principle to new entitlements. One or two Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee are rumored to be against the developing policy, though this could help attract more Democratic support — enough for the bill to get 65 to 70 votes. To try to mitigate the financial impact, market-oriented Medicare reforms of different forms will be part of both the House and Senate bills. It appears that the president’s proposal for limiting prescription-drug benefits to alternative health plans (known as the differential issue on Capitol Hill) is no longer in play, and that both bills are likely to offer a federal backup for rural areas, where market forces do not operate because of a lack of options.

If all the pieces fall into place, Republicans will hit the stump for next year’s elections with a hat trick under their belts: tax cuts, health-care reform and progress in the war on terror. The two unknown quantities are the economy and the eventual Democratic presidential nominee. If the Democrats find a credible moderate and the economy tanks, it will be a close election. If the economy improves, Democrats are in trouble — especially if Republicans effectively steal one of their issues by passing a new health-care entitlement. If a strong Bush victory looks inevitable, Democratic leaders might decide to recommit to liberal principles, pick a far-left candidate that comforts their core constituencies and go off into the wilderness to regroup for awhile, as Republicans did with Barry Goldwater when the Kennedy assassination guaranteed a Johnson victory in 1964. A good economy and an implausible Democratic candidate could put the GOP in the range of 60 seats in the Senate, delivering the political realignment that Watergate killed in 1972 and Ronald Reagan couldn’t pull together in the ‘80s but that has been in reach since the congressional takeover of 1994.

A prescription-drug law is politically essential to this power shift, as it is one issue that can bring single women and independents to the Republican column. The White House will be leaning hard on congressional leaders to get both the House and Senate bills done by the July 4 recess. There are risks to moving quickly on momentous legislation for the sake of political expediency. Conservatives will have to accept a big increase in the size of the federal government, and there is the concern that the entitlement could grow out of control in the future. But as we understand the current state of development of the Senate/Thomas packages, it is our view that there probably will be enough reform to justify support on the merits of policy improvement as well as political utility.

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