Drug Votes Open Rifts

Posted June 27, 2003 at 6:35pm

The House and Senate left for recess Friday after tumultuous late-night sessions in both chambers resulted in the passage of two vastly different Medicare bills and some significant intraparty tension.

On the Senate side, the prescription drug measure passed 76-21 with strong bipartisan support, but only after conservatives were angered by the scuttling of a controversial amendment.

The House version, meanwhile, passed 216-215 after a scheduled 15-minute vote was held open for more than 50 minutes. Nine Democrats voted for the measure, while 19 Republicans voted against it.

Of all the House Republicans who did not support the bill, Reps. Richard Burr (N.C.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.) seem to have upset GOP leaders the most. Both men are all but certain to run for the Senate in 2004, and both voted “no” despite receiving calls from top White House aides urging them to support the bill.

“Burr and DeMint’s votes were idiotic,” fumed a senior GOP leadership aide. “How this helps them in their Senate campaigns is beyond me.”

During a meeting with reporters Friday, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) went through the various GOP “no” votes, describing their different policy reasons for voting against the bill.

When he got to the North Carolina lawmaker, Hastert said only, “Mr. Burr is running for the Senate.”

“I think his staff has misinformed him,” Burr responded in an interview Friday.

He said the leadership tried to convince him to support the bill because it would help his Senate campaign, but that he voted against it anyway for policy reasons rather than political ones.

“I’m not sure that anybody could figure out any strategy where it’s advantageous to a Senate campaign” to vote against the bill, Burr said. “I went to Washington to write good policy, and this did not meet that test.”

While Burr heard from White House Chief of Staff Andy Card last week, DeMint got a similar call from top Bush administration aide Karl Rove.

“The decision was based on the merits of the bill,” said DeMint spokesman John Hart. “DeMint’s motivation was to protect and secure the program for the next generation, not to position himself for the next election.”

The last two Members to switch their votes and put the bill over the top were GOP Reps. Jo Ann Emerson (Mo.) and Butch Otter (Idaho).

Emerson focused during the days leading up to the vote on convincing House GOP leaders to remove language — inserted into the bill on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry — on banning drug reimportation into the United States. She changed her vote after being promised an up-or-down vote on reimportation legislation sponsored by her and Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.).

Some witnesses said Emerson appeared to be crying as she switched her vote, but the Missouri lawmaker denied that.

“Crying on the floor I was not doing,” Emerson said in an interview. “I was very intense. … I’m not [the] crier-type.”

Republican sources said that, unlike in some other recent close votes, the Medicare bill did not turn into a giant bartering session.

“This was not like [trade promotion authority],” said a senior House GOP leadership staffer. “The list of hard ‘no’ votes were not ones we could turn with projects.”

The aide added that they would have held the vote open another 12 hours if necessary. “We would have gotten the votes no matter what we had to do,” he said.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he was disappointed Democratic leaders couldn’t convince three or four more of their Members to vote against the GOP bill, saying, “They should have voted with us.”

“We may not have won,” Hoyer said. “They may have beaten up on enough people to match us, but if we had taken three away, they would have had to switch six. … Democratic defections certainly hurt us.”

Nine Democrats defected to the Republican bill, a smaller number than the minority privately expected before the vote. Even so, Members throughout the Caucus were irked and many felt betrayed by those who chose to push the green light.

Several Democratic sources said the defectors won’t lose their current positions in the Caucus, but could face future problems, such as being passed over for plum committee assignments or travel opportunities. What’s more, Members who joined with the GOP will have to regain the trust of their colleagues, leadership and other Democratic sources said.

“Credibility and respect will definitely be affected,” said one senior Democratic staffer.

One Democratic lawmaker close to the vote said: “From what I heard last night, there are some really frayed feelings here. People are hurt by what took place.”

“I don’t know what will happen,” the Member added. “I don’t think there will be committee assignments taken away, but things may not be forthcoming in the future.”

Hoyer declined to say whether there will be specific consequences for defectors, but he will be talking to those Members who broke ranks, letting them know how “serious it is for us to be together as a team.”

In a heated House Democratic Whip meeting last week, some Members said they would be reluctant to give money to their colleagues who sided with the GOP. According to several well-placed sources, Appropriations ranking member David Obey (D-Wis.) said in that session that he has given money to some of those Members, and added that “I will not give a red cent” if they vote against us on Medicare.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Hoyer made clear to the Caucus that the Medicare bill wasn’t just another vote, but one of their core issues critical to their attempt to regain a majority. Giving Republicans any help, they said, puts Democrats in a weaker position to argue against what they believe is a flawed policy.

Caucus sources said that while many of the defections were expected, three were particularly disappointing — those of Reps. Steve Israel (N.Y.) and Earl Pomeroy (N.D.), both of whom typically side with the minority, and Rep. Bud Cramer (Ala.), who often votes with the GOP but is in a very safe seat.

Israel, who voted for a similar GOP proposal a year ago, met with President Bush earlier in the week at the White House as the bill approached floor action. Caucus sources indicated Israel was also working to turn Democrats onto the bill, bucking the Whip operation.

“Active campaigning against us — that goes too far,” said a top House Democratic aide. “That’s the general sentiment here.”

Jack Pratt, spokesman for Israel, said his boss supported the measure because it includes a key provision for his district that increases Medicare reimbursements. He said Israel, who preferred the Democratic prescription drug alternative, has worked on that issue for some time.

“This was part of a local issue,” Pratt said, insisting Israel did not work to whip Democrats in favor of the GOP plan. “What he did was work with the administration to make sure they included that provision.”

While Pomeroy may face a tough re-election bid, Members believe he betrayed them by voting for the legislation, particularly since Democratic leaders have included him prominently in their “Frontline” project, designed to help finance the campaigns of vulnerable Members.

Furthermore, several appropriators had just last week worked to get him a $10 million earmark in the military construction spending bill.

“Pomeroy is going have a long way to go” to win back the trust of his colleagues, said one aide.

Another senior House Democratic aide, however, said Israel and Pomeroy made their positions known: “Both of them were very clear from the beginning.”

Pomeroy, a Ways and Means member, also voted for the bill in committee.

“The level of involvement from every Member on both sides of the aisle was heightened because of the closeness of the vote,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), a Chief Deputy Minority Whip. “This was, for many people, a defining vote. This [issue] was created by the Democrats and now it’s being dismantled by the Republicans.”

Civility in the Senate also suffered as the night wore on. Near the midnight hour, one fight over an amendment offered by Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) nearly brought down the entire bill.

And the eventual resolution to the incident ended up angering several conservative Republicans.

The trouble started after the Senate rejected, 38-59, a Democratic effort to table the Nickles-Feinstein proposal to require wealthier senior citizens to pay higher Medicare premiums. The issue of means-testing for Medicare has long been a touchy one for champions of the program, but the vote on the motion to table indicated there was enough support in the Senate to adopt the provision.

At that point Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), whose initial support for the bill has been blamed for undermining some Democratic resistance to the measure, marched to the well of the Senate following the vote to tell leaders in no uncertain terms that he would filibuster the entire Medicare prescription drug bill if the Senate tried to approve the amendment.

“You can have this amendment or you can have this bill, but you can’t have both,” Kennedy told Senate leaders, according to a Senate Democratic aide.

Kennedy also had what the aide described as a “heated” exchange with Feinstein and Nickles over the proposal.

Following a tense 15 minutes, Kennedy returned to his desk on the Senate floor and demonstrated his resolve by “sitting immovable,” one aide said.

Faced with keeping the Senate in until Sunday to resolve the dispute and after an hour of testy negotiations, Nickles proposed having the amendment killed on a voice vote, a move executed swiftly by Senate President Pro Tem Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) from the presiding officer’s chair.

But the voice vote to reject the proposal took many GOP Members by surprise.

After Stevens banged the gavel and declared the amendment dead, one Republican Senator was overheard asking, “What just happened?”

Senate GOP Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) responded, “We just caved,” according to aides.

But on Friday, Frist assured reporters that Santorum and others would see a version of the provision in the final bill, which will be worked out in a joint House-Senate conference.

“I think we have more than an expectation, but a mandate to do so,” said Frist. “This will all be adequately addressed in conference to Senators’ satisfaction.”

A defiant Feinstein, in a veiled reference to Kennedy, criticized the “powerful voices” that killed her proposal, through her spokesman, Scott Gerber. But she predicted eventual victory. “The Senate voted not to table this amendment and that vote cannot be erased,” she said. “Philosophically, I believe taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize people who can afford to pay, and I’ve always believed that.”

House and Senate GOP leaders agreed Friday that there was no timetable for beginning or ending the prescription drug conference, hitting on the refrain that it was most important to get the best bill possible as opposed to rushing through legislation.

“The goal here is not to finish by a certain point,” Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, adding that there would be no “artificial deadline.”

While House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) and Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) will lead the conference, McConnell suggested that Frist would play an oversight role because of the heart surgeon’s deep interest in health-care issues.

“The leader himself is going to be deeply involved in this,” McConnell said. “He knows more about this than anyone.”

Asked whether Frist’s presence would help smooth over the infamously prickly Grassley-Thomas relationship, McConnell smiled and declined to answer the question.

Paul Kane and John Bresnahan contributed to this report.