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The tactics being used by Medicare conference chairman Bill Thomas (R-CA) to push through final legislation that gives preference to contentious provisions in the House-passed Medicare prescription drug bill so angered 41 senators last week that they sent a letter to President Bush asking him to intervene in the negotiating process.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-SD) said Democrats would filibuster any final compromise if it forced Medicare into price competition with private insurers.

Given the number of senators who signed the letter, he appears to have the votes needed to defeat any attempt to end a filibuster if the Democrats should decide the final compromise is unacceptable.

The letter was signed by 39 Democrats and Sens. James Jeffords (I-VT and Olympia Snowe (R-ME).

In the 107th Congress, Jeffords and Snowe with Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-IA) and John Breaux (D-LA) cosponsored legislation similar to that which passed the Senate this session.

The letter specified the final compromise must include equal access to the same level of drug coverage no matter the coverage option chosen, must assure affordable, comprehensive coverage to those with incomes below 160 percent of the federal poverty level and must include a mechanism that ensures all seniors have access to a prescription drug benefit, no matter where they live.

Jeffords and Snowe have worked for years to get a bipartisan bill through the Senate, together with Grassley and Breaux, a spokesperson for Snowe said, and now they are worried this latest effort is going to collapse too.

They reportedly were particularly enraged when they learned Thomas had issued an outline of the final compromise that gives preference to contentious provisions in the House bill, which passed by only one vote, over those in the Senate bill which passed unanimously.

Grassley has been calling on Bush to intervene personally for weeks now, but now Bush is being asked to do so by Jeffords and 39 Democrats, including Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), who is critical to getting any final measure through the Senate.

Democrats also have been irked by the fact Breaux and Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) are the only two Democrats Thomas has allowed to participate in the final negotiations.

Democrats found it particularly offensive that Thomas excluded Daschle from the talks, and some said that action energized them to oppose the cloture vote on the class-action bill Oct. 22.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), who cast the decisive vote defeating the cloture vote on the class-action bill, said one of her reasons for doing so was because she no longer trusted what House Republicans would do to the bill in conference.

Daschle points out he and Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV) were approved as conferees by the Senate and, therefore, should be able to attend the conference negotiations.

He said Thomas had told him, however, that if he showed up the session would be canceled.

Thomas said he feels justified in excluding the Democrats at this point in the negotiations because they only would cause delay and he wants to make sure he gets a bill to the president to sign this year.

Daschle, however, said excluding Democrats is an "abuse of process" and a "degradation" of Congress as an institution. He says conferees should be able to be in the room when the final decisions are made.

Thomas and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), who also is a conferee, showed no signs of trying to appease the Democrats by close of business Oct. 24, when he said he would have a final version of the compromise outline completed.
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Publication:Liability & Insurance Week
Date:Oct 27, 2003

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