- The Washington Times - Monday, November 24, 2003

Senate Republicans and their allies yesterday won the key showdown on President Bush’s Medicare prescription-drug bill, clearing the way for its expected passage today.

Two Democratic efforts to kill the bill in the Senate failed, and the final vote is scheduled for today.

“There is a bipartisan majority who say obstruction is not the answer,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican. “Forty million seniors … are going to have access to prescription drugs.”

Even opponents of the bill conceded the inevitability of final passage for the $400 billion bill — the biggest expansion of federal entitlement programs in almost 40 years.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and other Democrats initially wanted to filibuster the bill, but the Senate rejected that move early yesterday, voting 70 to 29 — far more than the 60 votes needed — to limit debate and guarantee a final vote.

But Democrats then tried to kill the bill another way. They objected on grounds that the bill violated congressional budget rules because it spent more money in fiscal year 2004 than was called for in the 2004 budget and that the bill violated rules about committee jurisdiction.

To waive those rules also required 60 votes, and the Senate voted, 61-39, to waive them and defeat the Democrats, after a dramatic vote that went down to the wire.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska voted with the Democrats, while 11 Democrats and independent Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont joined Republicans in favor of waiving the rules and supporting the bill.

In the end however, the fate of the bill was in the hands of former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi — the only Republican who had not cast his vote. After several Republicans lobbied him, he finally voted with them to defeat the Democratic motion and then stormed out of the chamber.

Mr. Lott thinks the bill is way too costly and wants a much narrower prescription-drug benefit targeted only to the poor or those without coverage now.

Had he voted with the Democrats on their procedural objection, he could have taken a key victory away from Mr. Frist, the man who replaced him as the leader of the Senate. Mr. Frist neither lobbied the Mississippi senator personally nor did he join a cluster of Republicans trying to persuade Mr. Lott at the last minute.

“It was hard for him to vote for it,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and a friend of Mr. Lott.

Republicans managed to persuade Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a liberal from Rhode Island who often bucks party leaders, to vote with them, after he had crossed party lines to vote with Democrats earlier yesterday.

He said he supported the Republicans only after leaders assured him that a provision in the bill, requiring Medicare to compete directly against private health plans in a six-year pilot project in six cities starting in 2010, would not be applied in his state.

The imminent passage of the bill is a key victory for Republicans and for President Bush, who campaigned on the issue.

“Modernizing Medicare will make the system better and enable us to say to seniors we kept our promise,” Mr. Bush told reporters yesterday at a Colorado Army base.

But Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, predicted that instead of victory, seniors would hate the bill and Mr. Bush and Republicans would end up with the blame.

“They’re going to demand that Congress reopen this bill,” Mr. Daschle said of seniors once they realize the bill’s implications.

In arguing for the Democrats’ procedural objection, Mr. Daschle said the legislation should pass the 60-vote test no matter how it comes, and he pointed to Republicans including Mr. Frist and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, who raised similar budget objections to the Democrats’ prescription-drug bill last year.

But Sen. Don Nickles, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said he found it surprising that Mr. Daschle and Mr. Kennedy, who on almost every other occasion have supported waiving the budget rules, now want to enforce budget responsibility.

“I think they’re trying to kill the bill so the bill will come back and be a lot more irresponsible,” said Mr. Nickles, who opposes the bill but said he didn’t think it was right to use budget rules to defeat it.

Democrats admitted they wanted to kill the bill and start over.

“We want this bill to be renegotiated,” Mr. Daschle said.

Supporters said the bill would be dead if it was sent back to be hashed out again.

After their defeat, most Democrats admitted the bill would become law, but pledged to continue opposing it. “We’re going to continue to fight,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat.

Democrats say the measure provides paltry drug coverage for seniors and tips the scales away from Medicare and toward private health plans. They especially dislike the bill’s direct-competition pilot project, which they say will ruin Medicare by unfairly raising its premiums, as well as a provision that would provide $6 billion for tax-preferred health savings accounts, encouraging individuals to save for medical costs instead of relying entirely on the insurance system.

“We are seeing … the beginning of the unraveling of the Medicare system. Make no mistake about it,” Mr. Kennedy said.

“That couldn’t be farther from the truth,” retorted Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican who helped craft the bill, countering that Mr. Kennedy was “trying to scare senior citizens.”

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, at which point the senior would receive no help until roughly $5,100. Then, catastrophic coverage would kick in and the government would pick up 95 percent. Low-income seniors would get considerably more help.

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

The bill would provide a “fallback” government-guaranteed drug benefit for seniors if two or more private plans did not enter an area — an idea Senate Democrats wanted.

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