- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 18, 2003

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle has warned that Senate Democrats would not hesitate to block a Medicare prescription drug bill if it doesn’t address their concerns or caters to Republicans.

“We’re saying, look, these concerns still hold; these problems are still serious ones that have to be addressed, and if they’re not, don’t look to us for support for this bill,” Mr. Daschle said Friday, referring to a July letter in which Senate Democrats laid out key demands.

He said Democrats would “absolutely not” have any qualms about a filibuster if they don’t like the final product.

Mr. Daschle’s statements were meant as a warning to House and Senate negotiators who are pushing to produce a final bill and aiming to make key decisions this week. They missed their goal of producing a bill by Oct. 17, but Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said there was “an understanding that we have to pick up the pace more” this week. A Senate Republican aide said leaders “want everything decided by Wednesday.”

Talks to this point have produced some tentative agreements, but no major decisions have been made. Negotiators have left the most contentious issues for the end, including whether to require traditional Medicare to compete directly with private health plans starting in 2010 — a key desire of House conservatives, but strongly opposed by Senate Democrats who say it will destroy Medicare. The July letter, signed by 37 Democrats, said they would oppose a final bill that included the idea.

Mr. Daschle’s warning Friday also may have been inspired by the fact that negotiators said recently there was general support among them to require wealthy seniors to pay higher premiums for their doctor visits and outpatient services under Medicare. House Republicans, who are pushing the idea of “means-testing,” took the news as a good sign the bill is moving in their direction.

But many Democrats strongly oppose means-testing, saying it would undermine the universal nature of Medicare. Mr. Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, cited it as one of the Democrats’ concerns with the bill.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and leading critic of means-testing, said he was reserving all judgment until he sees a final product. A Kennedy spokesman, however, made it clear Mr. Kennedy would join Mr. Daschle in blocking a “bad” bill that undermines or privatizes Medicare, warning that if negotiators produce a Republican-leaning bill “it will not get through the Senate.”

House conservatives want the bill to include major reforms to Medicare, including strong competition from the private sector. They also want stricter cost containment and tax-free health savings accounts for individuals.

In their letter, Democrats said they want to give seniors a heftier drug benefit instead of spending money on the health accounts. They also want a government-run fallback prescription drug plan, in case private health plans do not enter certain areas of the country.

Some conservatives have worried that President Bush and Republican leaders will ultimately sell them out in favor of a bipartisan bill that Democrats such as Mr. Kennedy can support.

“To have Senator Kennedy on board — which is I think how many define ‘bipartisan’ — they’ve got to create in essence a Democratic bill,” Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, said in September.

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