Senate rejects bills offering prescription drug coverage

Tuesday, July 23, 2002

AP Special CorrespondentWASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate on Tuesday scuttled rival bills to provide Medicare prescription drug coverage -- one backed chiefly by Democrats, the other principally by Republicans -- in a standoff with implications for the fall campaign.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and some Republicans said they hoped for a final stab at compromise, but the twin votes, largely along party lines, left the fate of the legislation in doubt.

The first bill to fall was a measure backed by Democrats. It would have created a new government-run prescription drug benefit for the 34 million older Americans under Medicare, at a cost estimated at $594 billion over several years.

Republicans challenged the measure under the Senate's budget rules, and the vote was 52-47, eight short of the 60 needed to advance.

Next came legislation crafted by Republicans, aligned with a small group of Democrats and Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, the Senate's only independent. Challenged by Democrats, it fell on a vote of 48-51, 12 short of the 60 needed.

That plan envisioned a less expensive program than the Democratic blueprint, with coverage offered through private companies at a cost estimated at $340 billion. The measure devoted an additional $30 billion to create an optional alternative to traditional fee-for-service Medicare.

Under the proposal, seniors could choose to enroll in a plan that requires payment of a single deductible expense of a few hundred dollars annually for coverage of hospital stays and other services such as doctor visits. The proposal includes coverage for services not presently eligible for Medicare payment.

Both bills offered government prescription drug subsidies for low-income patients, as well as coverage for any Medicare recipient willing to pay, but they differed widely in the details.

The issue struck sparks on the Senate floor as Democrats repeatedly said GOP opposition to a government-run benefit harked back to Republican objections when Medicare was created 36 years ago.

Senate GOP Whip Don Nickles, R-Okla., had no sooner finished criticizing the Democratic measure than Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said acidly it was too bad the Oklahoma Republican wasn't in the Senate in 1965. "He could have joined the chorus of voices -- voices on that side of the aisle -- that argued against Medicare. He'd have fit right in," Harkin said.

Nickles, standing a few feet away on the Senate floor, shot back, "I wonder why you're guessing what I might have done in 1965."

"I'm not guessing," retorted Harkin, saying he was extrapolating from Nickles' comments on prescription drug legislation.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., present in the Senate when Medicare was created in 1965, said the prescription drug legislation was long overdue.

Under the Democratic bill, he said: "There is no deductible, there are no gaps, there are no loopholes. The benefit and the premium are both guaranteed in the law itself. Low-income senior citizens get special assistance."

Republicans noted that the cost of the Democratic measure was $600 billion over 10 years -- and that the benefit would not begin until 2005 and end in 2010.

Jeffords argued that the alternative, dubbed the Tripartisan Bill because it drew support from him, one or two Democrats and numerous Republicans, was preferable. "Our plan is comprehensive, affordable, sustainable into the future," he said. "It will provide seniors with an important drug benefit, at an affordable cost."

Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, the leading Democratic supporter of the Jeffords measure, said it melded "the best that government can do with the best that the private sector can do," providing federal supervision over private innovation and creativity.

The Republican-controlled House passed legislation this year on a largely party-line vote to provide coverage under a program of private insurance.

President Bush has spoken favorably of that plan, but congressional Democrats attacked it as a false promise that would benefit the pharmaceutical and insurance industries without guaranteeing coverage for anyone.

The measure followed a tortuous path to the Senate floor, and Republicans said that cast doubt on claims by Democrats that they want a compromise that can pass and lead to negotiations on a final compromise with the House.

Under a procedure designed by Daschle, the debate unfolded on measures that were never the subject of hearings or public debate by the Senate Finance Committee, the panel with jurisdiction over Medicare.

Nickles suggested that was because a majority of the committee would have lined up to support the alternative to the Democratic plan, and that "wouldn't have been a product that the majority leader would have liked."

The political subtext was unmistakable. Democrats enjoy a double-digit advantage over Republicans when voters are asked which party can best deal with health care in general and prescription drugs for Medicare.

A prominent Republican polling firm, Public Opinion Strategies, recently circulated a memorandum to GOP strategists warning that despite the current focus on corporate fraud, Democrats "always come back to Social Security (and prescription drugs) during campaigns."

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