- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2003

Conservative House Republicans who voted for the House Medicare prescription drug bill are now pledging to vote against the final bill if it is weakened in conference and doesn’t include key Medicare reforms.

“Without the reforms in the House-passed bill, we’re not going to be supporting the conference report,” said Rep. Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, who is spearheading the effort.

Mr. Toomey is collecting signatures on a letter to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, outlining what must be in the final bill in order for them to vote yes.

Among the key elements demanded by Mr. Toomey and his allies is the House bill’s provision requiring Medicare to compete against private health plans starting in 2010. That provision, strongly opposed by most Democrats, is not in the Senate bill. Many say a final bill that includes 2010 competition cannot pass the Senate.

But House Republicans say they would rather lose the drug benefit than pass a bad bill.

“I fear failure far less than I fear success of the wrong thing,” said Rep. Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican who signed the Toomey letter.

Republicans say private-sector competition is the only way to modernize Medicare and make the health care system much more cost-effective. Democrats say the measure essentially would kill Medicare.

Mr. Toomey said the final bill also must include a cost-containment provision, to keep the price tag from skyrocketing past the congressionally set limit of $400 billion over 10 years.

“We are writing to tell you that we cannot in good conscience vote for the Medicare prescription drug benefit bill when it comes out of conference if the Senate weakens the bill that we passed in the House,” reads a draft version of the Republicans’ letter obtained by The Washington Times.

In addition to cost-containment and 2010 competition, the letter also said the final bill must create more health savings accounts for individuals, and must not impose any price controls on the prescription drug industry.

Club for Growth President Stephen Moore said the letter is designed to “draw a line in the sand,” and “strengthen [the] hand” of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican who is negotiating the final conference report on behalf of House Republicans.

Mr. DeLay has said he won’t bring a bill back from conference that his own party members in the House can’t support.

The House passed its Medicare prescription drug bill by just one vote. Senate Medicare conferees are pushing for the final bill to take a more moderate, bipartisan approach like the Senate-passed bill.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and key Medicare conferee, has said he must have a bipartisan bill that can pass the Senate with 60 votes — enough to overcome a filibuster threat.

Mr. Toomey, Mr. Franks and other conservatives say if conferees hit an impasse and cannot produce a bill that will pass both chambers, Congress should go back and start from scratch, targeting the prescription drug benefit only to those who truly need it, and spending much less money.

During last week’s Medicare conference meeting, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, said if the final bill includes the 2010 competition provision, it will not get 60 votes in the Senate.

And key Medicare conferee Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat and ranking member of the Finance Committee, told fellow conferees he will reconsider his support for the final bill if it becomes a Republican-crafted measure. He said it must be a bill that “moves enough towards the Senate version” to gain 60 votes.

“No bill is better than a bad bill,” he said. “I hope I don’t get to that point.”

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