Democrats threaten to kill Medicare bill

By Mark Shermam ~ The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- The Senate Democratic leader promised a vigorous fight Sunday against the Medicare prescription drug bill, one of President Bush's top priorities, which passed the House only after an unprecedented three-hour vote.

Sen. Tom Daschle acknowledged, however, that Democrats lack the votes to sustain a filibuster threatened by Sen. Edward Kennedy and his fellow Massachusetts Democrat, presidential contender John Kerry. Republicans can stop the filibuster with 60 of the Senate's 100 votes.

"A number of our colleagues believe that we ought to focus on the flaws, and there are many, many flaws today," said Daschle, D-S.D. "But I must say we will fight this bill as hard as we possibly can. We have a number of procedural options available to us, and we're going to use them all."

Neither Daschle, who spoke on NBC's "Meet the Press," nor his spokeswoman, Ranit Schmelzer, would elaborate on what other parliamentary moves the Democrats might use against the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who scheduled a vote Monday to block the threatened filibuster and wants final passage of the bill early in the week, said he thinks that the bill's supporters have more than 60 votes.

"I think we can break the filibuster," said Frist, R-Tenn.

The legislation was the subject of rare weekend Senate debates after the House passed it on the extended vote before dawn Saturday.

For his part, Kennedy was committed to the filibuster, although he repeated his offer to forgo the exercise if the Republican leaders in the House would agree to bring it up again there.

"This was Florida all over again," Kennedy told ABC's "This Week."

"Republicans played fast and loose with the votes in Florida. They did with the House of Representatives. And if this is such a wonderful, wonderful program, why not have the free and open debate?" he said.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said on "Fox News Sunday" that Kennedy's outrage over the House vote was interesting considering that the senator "wants to deny people to have their vote. He wants to deny people to have an up or down vote on health care in the U.S. Senate by filibustering, to delay the vote."

The bill would create a prescription drug benefit for 40 million older and disabled Americans, as well as a new option for private health care coverage.

Democrats overwhelmingly oppose the plan. They say some elements of the bill were too dear a price to pay for the drug benefit -- especially a provision creating a limited experiment in direct competition between private plans and traditional Medicare beginning in 2010.

Like Kennedy, other Democratic senators said they were upset with what they said were strong-arm tactics by House GOP leaders. The House approved the bill only after the longest roll call in the chamber's history that ended at dawn -- a contrast to the 15 minutes such votes are supposed to last.

The House vote was stuck at 216 to 218 for over an hour, with the bill on the edge of defeat until a flurry of last-minute switches overcame a rebellion by conservatives.

Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware and presidential hopeful Joe Lieberman of Connecticut said they would support Kennedy's filibuster. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., appearing with Kennedy on ABC, said he would, too, but for a reason different from Kennedy's.

"He wants to make it bigger. I want to make it better," said McCain, who said he worries about spiraling costs to state and federal treasuries and "another $8 trillion in unfunded mandates that we're laying on our kids."

Hastert, his lieutenants and Health and Human Services Department Secretary Tommy Thompson shuttled from one GOP holdout to another seeking the votes to prevail. The president lobbied about a dozen lawmakers by phone from the White House late Friday and early Saturday.

Republicans hope to pass the bill and send it to the president before Thanksgiving.