- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 23, 2003

Senate Democrats are threatening a filibuster of the final version of the Medicare prescription-drug bill.

The House and Senate have passed different versions of the hotly debated measure. Angered by reports that a House-Senate conference is leaning toward House Republican positions on key elements of the plan, Democrats yesterday urged President Bush to demand a more bipartisan bill.

“We call on the president to intervene,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat. “We will not support a conference report that is going to do harm to the Medicare system.”

Democrats are angriest at a provision in the House plan that would require traditional Medicare to compete directly against private health plans by 2010 — a move Democrats say would destroy the government health program for senior citizens.

Such a provision is a “show-stopper,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. The South Dakota Democrat sent Mr. Bush a letter highlighting concerns of like-minded senators.

The Daschle letter was signed by 39 Democratic senators, independent Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont and Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine — enough votes to filibuster a final bill they don’t like, which Mr. Daschle said is an option.

Meanwhile, House Republicans were pleased by reports of the conference negotiations — and welcomed the angry reactions of top Democrats.

“I’m encouraged. If you’ve got Ted Kennedy and [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi mad, there might be something to this bill,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican. “You’ve got me interested.”

North Carolina Rep. Sue Myrick, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, is “cautiously optimistic” about the bill, said her spokesman, Andy Polk.

Indiana Rep. Mike Pence said he and other House Republicans were told by their leaders earlier this week that the conference was going to produce a bill more in line with what Republicans want, even if it prompts a Senate filibuster.

“That was encouraging to many Republicans and even intriguing to people like me,” said Mr. Pence, who said he and other conservatives would like to start over, producing a less-costly bill that targets drug coverage to those seniors who need it most.

Still, some House Republicans said they were unhappy late yesterday with reports from the conference.

“I’m not jumping up and down for joy,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican. He said he was briefed yesterday afternoon on the measure’s progress and said the 2010 competition provision was being “watered down” while cost-limiting provisions were “toothless.”

House Republican leaders would not comment on the details of a final bill, but made it clear they do not intend to back down in response to filibuster threats.

“I don’t think Republicans should apologize for being in the majority,” said Jonathan Grella, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican. “Tom Daschle can either be a constructive part of the process or he can continue to obstruct and pay the political price.”

A Senate Republican aide said that a short working outline of the bill distributed Tuesday by lead negotiator Rep. Bill Thomas, California Republican, did have several provisions that the Democratic letter opposes — including 2010 competition, a mechanism to contain costs of the prescription-drug benefit, and individual health savings accounts.

But Senate negotiators said the document was simply a discussion document and not a final agreement, and Democrats shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

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