- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2003

A compromise between House and Senate Republican leaders to push through the Medicare prescription-drug bill is still on table after being submitted yesterday to members on both sides of the aisle.

Leaders shopped the bill around Capitol Hill trying to persuade enough lawmakers to have the federal health program compete against private plans, but on a limited basis.

Lead Medicare negotiator Rep. Bill Thomas, California Republican, was reportedly unhappy, a Senate aide said.

“I don’t have any feelings on it one way or the other,” Mr. Thomas said, refusing further comment.

Negotiators are scheduled to meet again Monday.

House conservatives want the competition stipulation in the final bill, but many Senate Democrats say it is designed to ruin Medicare.

Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, pitched a scaled-back version of the direct-competition idea Tuesday to the two key Senate Democratic negotiators, said aides close to the process.

Their proposal would limit the direct-competition idea to one region of the country and perhaps a few cities. It would extend for three years, with the possibility that the president could expand it for an additional three years, aides said.

Sens. John B. Breaux of Louisiana and Max Baucus of Montana, Democratic negotiators, told their colleagues of the compromise yesterday.

Mr. Breaux was supportive.

“There’s a tentative agreement in play,” Mr. Breaux said last night, adding that it has significant support.

“It reflects a legitimate compromise; no one is totally satisfied,” Mr. Breaux said.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Baucus said he is not commenting on it, but one Senate Democratic aide said the senator is “supportive of the proposal but leaving his options open.”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, came out strongly against it, saying though it is being touted as a demonstration project, it “would be the demise of the Medicare system as we know it.”

The proposal also took heat from a few House conservatives.

“Watering down premium support to merely a demonstration project, as initial reports suggest, will not thrill any conservative,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican.

Rep. Patrick J. Toomey agreed.

“The preliminary reports that the Medicare conference bill will contain only minimal competition provisions are very disappointing,” the Pennsylvania Republican said.

But others sounded more hopeful.

“Some folks on the conservative side may have a problem with it, but the general feeling is that we’d pick up enough and that there’s so many good things in the bill for conservatives that we can keep the conservatives on board,” said a House Republican aide.

Top Senate Republican negotiator Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, said he is inclined to support the proposal if that’s what it takes to get a bill that provides a drug benefit for seniors. Mr. Grassley wouldn’t say whether he was on board with the tentative deal.

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