- The Washington Times - Friday, November 21, 2003

The top Senate Democrat said yesterday he will not hold up a vote on the final Medicare prescription drug plan as House Republicans scrambled late into the evening to find enough votes to get the bill out of that chamber.

“I’m not going to support a filibuster on Medicare because I want this debate to be about the substance of this legislation,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle after a caucus meeting last night.

Mr. Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, and other senators said the bill provides a paltry prescription-drug benefit for seniors and tilts the scale too far toward private health plans.

Senate Democrats are divided on the bill, so, Mr. Daschle said, “I don’t belive that a filibuster reflects the consensus in our caucus.” Several Senate Democrats have come out in favor of the bill in recent days.

Any Senate Democrat who strongly opposes the bill could still force a procedural vote that would require 60 votes in order to bring the bill to the floor, but Mr. Daschle said he would side with Republicans to move the bill forward for a vote.

The Senate is expected to debate the plan over the weekend and likely vote on it Monday.

Meanwhile, House Republican leaders yesterday were still scurrying to shore up support from unhappy conservatives who say the measure creates a huge financial burden and doesn’t truly reform Medicare.

The vote on the bill, expected to cost $395 billion over 10 years, was to be taken too late for this edition.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, admitted GOP votes were scattered but predicted leaders would get enough of them in the end. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, made one last public plea to his conservatives yesterday afternoon, as private meetings were held all day between members and leaders.

“This is our chance,” he said. “This bill is not perfect. … But it is a bipartisan solution that improves healthcare to seniors and begins to fix Medicare.”

At its heart, the bill would give millions of seniors voluntary prescription-drug coverage for the first time for a premium of about $35 a month and annual deductible of $250. The government would pay 75 percent of a seniors’ annual drug costs up to $2,250.

For those seniors who choose to stay with traditional Medicare, the drug benefit would be provided by private insurers. Or users could choose a new option under the Medicare law that would let private insurers provide comprehensive health insurance, including prescription drugs.

It also would require Medicare to compete directly against the private plans starting in 2010, in a six-year pilot program involving six cities.

Conservatives are angry that their broader direct-competition provision was watered-down to a pilot program, saying it will not reform Medicare by forcing it to be more cost-effective. Democrats say even the pilot program goes too far and will ruin Medicare by raising premiums.

The House conservatives also wanted a cap on the overall cost of the new Medicare drug benefit, but the bill instead includes a mechanism requiring Congress and the president to examine Medicare costs once they climb too high.

Rep. Tom Feeney, Florida Republican, who voted for the initial House bill but planned to vote against the final bill, called the pilot program and the cost-containment provisions nothing more than “a small bone from the table being thrown to conservatives.”

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