Missed opportunity

August 01, 2002

NEARLY EVERYONE expected the Senate debate over helping retirees buy prescription drugs to end exactly as it did yesterday -- in failure. That doesn't make it less disappointing.

Driven by election-year urgency, senators were uncommonly willing to compromise. Other political considerations intervened, however, and they couldn't reach consensus.

No senator should be smug about blaming the defeat on the other party. There were plenty of missteps by the Democratic majority, but also lots of Republican feet in the path making sure the Democrats stumbled.

Older Americans, who were so frequently described during the debate as having to choose between medicine and other necessities, are apt to focus their ire on all incumbents. That's where it belongs.

The Senate agreed only on a measure that would ease market access for generic drugs, a worthwhile but small gesture. A second provision -- allowing Americans to buy U.S.-made drugs from Canada -- is an empty gesture. The Bush administration says it wouldn't enforce such a law because the drugs' safety can't be guaranteed.

Majority Leader Tom Daschle was working with many handicaps. He has only a one-vote majority and is incapable of passing anything without GOP help because opponents invariably demand a three-fifths minimum. Plus, Democrats are divided within their own ranks.

Even so, Mr. Daschle forfeited his best chance to produce a consensus when he bypassed the Finance Committee.

The committee includes both party leaders and other key players on health issues. But it was inclined to compromise further than Mr. Daschle was willing to go.

He later abandoned much of the original $594 billion Democratic proposal. He decided the program didn't have to cover all retirees, didn't have to cost so much, didn't even have to be in Medicare -- but in Medicaid, which serves the poor.

A core dispute remains, however, over whether drug coverage can be offered through private insurers without government underwriting the risk.

There's no sign that private companies want to offer coverage to such a high-usage group on their own. But Republicans and some Democrats contend that would be cheaper and more efficient than creating another federal entitlement.

A blend of public and private elements may be the answer, when Congress returns to the issue.

Meanwhile, yesterday's gloating by Trent Lott was unseemly. The GOP leader, of all people, should remember how tough it is when the opposition party just says no.

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