Drug plans fail in Senate

Bills would have added drug benefit to Medicare

Parties vie for votes of seniors

Negotiators meet today to seek a compromise

July 24, 2002|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Despite an overwhelming show of support for helping older Americans buy prescription drugs, the Senate blocked competing plans yesterday that would add that benefit to Medicare, the government health program for seniors.

In a series of staged votes on the high-profile issue, Senate Democrats and Republicans put themselves on record as endorsing separate prescription drug plans. But neither party could muster the support needed to gain approval for its plan.

Deep divisions over how to structure the costly new benefit - viewed as one of the central issues in the November election - are frustrating efforts to reach a bipartisan compromise this year.

Negotiators from both sides plan to meet behind closed doors today to discuss a compromise. Because the Republican-controlled House has already approved a GOP plan, Democrats are worried about the political consequences if the Senate fails to act.

"Not only is it extremely important for the seniors of this country, but it's also politically imperative that we do it," said Sen. James M. Jeffords, a Vermont independent who voted in favor of both versions yesterday.

Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, a main sponsor of his party's Medicare drug plan, said: "Apparently, the Democratic leadership is not interested in making things happen for our seniors. The other side did not want a real debate. They wanted a real issue instead."

But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, called the Republican proposal "little more than a political fig leaf for the elections."

With control of Congress up for grabs in the midterm election, the conflict over prescription drugs is particularly intense this year. Both parties are eager to capture the support of seniors - who vote in disproportionate numbers and who, polls show, are increasingly concerned about the rising cost of prescription drugs.

Both sides tried to paint yesterday's action not as the collapse of this year's Medicare drug debate but as a necessary step in the process of negotiating a bipartisan solution.

Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who is the chief architect of his party's drug coverage proposal, said the votes should be interpreted "not as a signal of defeat, and to go into retreat, but as a call to action."

But the action on the competing drug plans pointed up the wide gulf that separates the parties, one that many say is simply too wide.

Democrats are demanding that the government guarantee drug coverage to seniors, while Republicans advocate plans that would rely in part on private industry to help seniors defray the fast-growing cost of prescription drugs.

Costs of compromise

"The differences between the Democratic and the Republican approaches are so substantial that it's very hard to bridge those differences in an election year," said Ron Pollack, executive director of the group Families USA, which backs the Democratic proposal.

The political costs of a compromise may indeed be too high for both parties at the moment.

Democrats contend that they have an advantage on the prescription drug issue, because voters traditionally trust them more to protect government benefits.

"While Republicans are doing their best to give themselves some political cover on the issue, it's absolutely clear that the public understands who's on their side on this point," said Jim Jordan, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "If voters see ads and become confused on an issue, they will simply fall back on their instinctive and visceral impressions."

But Republicans say their strategy of going head to head with Democrats and offering competing prescription drug plans has worked.

"It's the Democrats who are going to have trouble explaining this, because they've been talking about delivering this for a long time, and they can't," said Dan Allen a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "When we're talking across the country, we're saying, `We have come to the table and offered a plan and passed a plan.'"

A senior Senate Republican aide put the matter bluntly: "If it's health care, and we're not getting completely killed, we're winning."

Both plans defeated

The Senate essentially rejected both plans yesterday, because neither side could gain the 60 votes necessary to overcome procedural objections under Senate rules. The Democratic measure fell eight votes short, by a margin of 52-47. The Republican plan fell on a vote of 48-51.

The Democratic proposal, sponsored by Graham, Zell Miller of Georgia and Kennedy, would create a new benefit under Medicare that would cover prescription drugs for seniors for a monthly premium of $25, with co-payments of $10 to $40 for most prescriptions.

Republican leaders say the plan would jeopardize the future of Medicare because it is far too costly.

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