Senate rejects bills on prescriptions

WASHINGTON -- The Senate on Tuesday scuttled rival bills to provide prescription drug coverage for 34 million Medicare recipients, leaving the politically charged issue in limbo little more than 100 days before midterm elections.

Democrats and Republicans alike spoke optimistically of a hurry-up stab at compromise -- at the same time they maneuvered for election-year advantage.

Without a breakthrough, warned Sen. John Breaux, D-La., senior citizens will wind up with "excuses that they can't take to the drugstore."

The first bill to fall was crafted by Democrats to create a new government-run prescription drug benefit for the 34 million older Americans served by 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 a "tripartisan" measure from Republicans joined by Breaux 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.

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.

Objections' echo

Democrats repeatedly said GOP opposition to a government-run benefit echoed 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 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.

Key Democrats met with Jeffords within hours of the votes on the Senate floor in hopes of fashioning a measure that could command 60 votes. They arranged to expand their effort to include a few key Republicans today.

One congressional source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the discussion centered on creating prescription drug coverage through private companies, but at a guaranteed level of benefit. Additionally, the government would be empowered to provide coverage if no private market developed. The price tag under discussion was in the range of $500 billion, this source said.