- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Senate Republicans blocked a top priority of the Democratic-led Congress yesterday by filibustering a proposal to permit the federal government to negotiate Medicare prescription prices directly with pharmaceutical companies.

The motion stalled in the Senate after falling five votes short of the 60 needed to end the filibuster and move to a debate and vote on the bill.

“I’ve never seen the government take a program from the private sector and deliver it more efficiently and at a lower cost,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

Republicans said the bill would restrict seniors’ access to prescription drugs by allowing the government to fix prices.

Supporters, who say the measure would result in significantly lower drug prices for seniors who participate in the Medicare Part D program, vow that the issue isn’t dead and say they will reintroduce the measure later.

“The Senate today missed an opportunity to right a wrong, but we’re going to be back at this,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat. “The public is with us.”

The bill strikes language in the 2003 Medicare Modernization Act that prohibits the secretary of the Health and Human Services Department from interfering in negotiations for drugs.

Under Medicare Part D, which covers most or all of the cost of prescription drugs, insurers deal with the pharmaceutical industry and receive a federal subsidy for administering a drug plan. Participants can choose among several plans.

Part D is credited with lowering drug prices, but Democrats say costs could be cut further by allowing the government to negotiate directly with drugmakers.

The House passed a stronger version of the bill in January, by a vote of 255-170, that requires the Health and Human Services to negotiate with drugmakers.

The Bush administration opposes both versions.

Yesterday, six Republicans broke ranks with their party and joined 47 Democrats and two independents in voting to end debate. Republican supporters were Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Gordon H. Smith of Oregon and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Wyden said the bill has at least 58 supporters. He said the additional three votes would come from Sen. Tim Johnson, the South Dakota Democrat who has been hospitalized since mid-December for a brain hemorrhage; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who voted with the dissenters so that he could bring the bill up again; and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.

Mr. Wyden added that “there are a number of [additional] votes that I think can still be reached.”

Republican leaders said they voted against allowing the bill to proceed to a final “up or down” vote because they couldn’t get an assurance from Democrats that Republican amendments would be considered.

“There was no confidence on our side that the amendments that we wanted to propose … would really ever get voted on,” said Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona and the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.

But Mr. Reid accused Senate Republicans of “obstructionism in an effort to protect the drug industry at the expense of our seniors.”

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