- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2003

Republicans drafting the Medicare prescription-drug bill said progress has been made, but there is much to do before a final bill emerges.

House and Senate conferees have a daunting task to draft a bill that will appease House conservatives and still be able to pass the more centrist Senate.

“We’re making real progress,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, after a meeting of House and Senate Republican Medicare conferees yesterday. “We need to do our best to complete this bill in the next four weeks,” he said, though he conceded some conferees want six weeks.

House conservatives say the final prescription-drug bill must include substantial Medicare reform, including a key provision requiring Medicare to compete directly against private health plans starting in 2010. They also want provisions to hold costs down and establish medical savings accounts.

A House Republican leadership aide said the conference will have to produce a final bill with some of the reforms conservatives want or else it will not pass the House.

“It’s about passage,” the aide said. “There’s simply not much room to move.”

Aides said the Republican meeting was “intense” at times and included discussion of one of the most contentious issues: how much private-sector competition should be included in the final prescription-drug benefit. Aides said several competition options are on the table.

But others say a final bill that leans toward House conservatives will not get through the Senate. The Senate bill took a more moderate approach.

“If it looks too much like the House bill, I don’t think it’s going to pass the Senate,” said Sen. John B. Breaux, Louisiana Democrat and Medicare committee member.

Most Senate Democrats strongly oppose the House bill’s 2010 competition provision, saying it’s designed to move people out of Medicare and into the private sector. And they oppose medical savings accounts, saying that money should be used to beef up what they say is the inadequate drug benefit created under both bills.

The Alliance for Retired Americans agrees with Democrats, and brought busloads of seniors to Capitol Hill yesterday to protest the bills’ inclusion of private-sector competition.

“What we want is a prescription-drug plan under Medicare and not turned over to the private sector,” ARA President George J. Kourpias said.

Members from both sides also said seniors are very worried employers will drop their retiree health coverage once the new government-run drug benefit kicks in.

The president continues to push for a final bill, but some want him to do more.

In a Wednesday meeting with congressional Republican leaders, Mr. Bush called for a final bill and stressed that it must be a good one, said Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican and Medicare conferee who attended that meeting.

But House conservatives complained Mr. Bush should take a stronger stand, defining clearly what he means by a “good” bill, and helping them get the Medicare reforms they are fighting for.

“The White House is for anything,” said Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican. “Let’s define ‘good.’”

Mr. Ryan said the White House should push for the reforms conservatives want. “They don’t seem to want to do that,” he added.

After the meeting with the president, said Mr. Kyl, a conservative who is pushing for many of the same reforms, he had a long, positive conversation with a White House official about the bill, including the best way to set up competition. Mr. Kyl said the White House will be “very engaged” in crafting the final bill and, “it may require their leadership to get certain things resolved.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican who voted against the House bill because he thinks it will be too costly, said more and more House Republicans are wary of the legislation.

“There is significant doubt that this legislation has the momentum to make it to the finish line,” said Mr. Pence, who favors scrapping both bills and starting over.

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