- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2003

President Bush hit the stump yesterday to promote congressional passage of the prescription-drug bill. In meetings with seniors out West, he assured those with high drug costs that his administration was delivering the relief they need. Medicare “was becoming old and it needed help,” said the president. When he signs the legislation into law, “the Medicare system will be modern and it will be strong.” Because of the promise of the program, the traditionally pro-Democratic AARP took the unusual move of backing the Republican bill in the strongest manner. The new entitlement will help many Americans, and it may pull new voters into the Republican Party.

Mr. Bush deserves a lot of credit for the victory. The legislation barely survived an all-night ordeal in the House on Saturday, where it struggled to passage by a vote of 220-215. To get there, majority leaders kept the vote open for an amazing three hours while members were pressured and cajoled to change nay votes. Mr. Bush, who generally is known to retire to bed by 10 p.m., worked the phones into the middle of the night. Democrats have protested that Republicans “stole the vote” by keeping it open for so long, but keeping votes open was a regular tactic when the Democrats were in the majority until 1994. The rule is that a vote must be kept open for at least 15 minutes, and a routine vote lasts half an hour, but there is no rule limiting how long a vote can remain open.

This week’s votes in the Senate were a little easier. A Democratic filibuster attempt was easily defeated by a vote of 70-29. Final passage came in at 54-44, with nine Republicans opposing the bill and 11 Democrats and independent Jim Jeffords (who caucuses with the Democrats) supporting it. Almost a quarter of the Democratic caucus and the vast majority (by Democratic Party standards) of Democratic moderates voted with Republicans on the premier issue Democrats have considered their own since 1965. This would suggest that the Democratic leadership is vulnerable to losing the fealty of moderates in their party.

There has been a lot of chatter from critics who argue that the Republican prescription-drug legislation is an imperfect bill. The notion was advanced by both Democrats, who thought the program should be larger, and some conservatives, who thought it should be smaller. Such caviling is foolish. Given the conflicting values, interests and political allegiances involved in major legislation, it is improbable that any bill is ever perfect by any one individual’s standard. We live in a democracy, not a dictatorship — which necessitates compromise and a certain amount of horse trading. The Medicare bill’s architects need not apologize because it was cobbled together to satisfy competing concerns. That’s how all major legislation gets produced.

The outcome from all of the deal-making was impressive this time around. The market-based measures and improvements to Medicare are very significant. Months ago, it was thought that these provisions from the House version would be doomed in conference, and that it would be practically impossible to get a weaker eventual conference report passed in the lower chamber. One of the most important explanations for passage of the new benefit is that Senate conferees understood they had to make the final bill much more conservative than what passed the upper chamber previously. Without this extra effort, Saturday’s five-vote passage in the House would not have been possible.

If the Republicans fully exploit the prescription-drug accomplishment, they must take credit for the benefit they have delivered to seniors over Democratic opposition. Helping with drug costs should win support from seniors, which could be decisive in states with many retirees such as Florida, Nevada and Arizona. This gives comfort not only to retirees but to boomers who are close to retirement and who now have one less worry concerning their aging parents. Last week, Republicans still were not sure how they would get the bill passed, but they did it. They should not be shy about taking credit for the achievement.

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