WASHINGTON — Tending to a vital election-year issue, House Republicans forced committee approval for their Medicare prescription drug legislation Wednesday night over the implacable opposition of Democrats.
The 23-to-14 vote was strictly along party lines on the bill, which envisions a blend of free-market insurance plans and government subsidies to spread coverage nationwide.
The vote set the stage for what is likely to be a tough struggle next week on the House floor on a measure Republicans have been warned by a GOP pollster is a "political imperative" for the coming campaign.
Shortly before final passage, Republicans held ranks and rejected a Democratic alternative calling for a uniform government-defined prescription drug benefit, also to be available nationwide.
"Clearly, now is the time to add prescription drug coverage to Medicare," said Rep. Bill Archer (R-Texas) as he gaveled the House Ways and Means Committee into session.
"There is no public office or election that is more important than the safety and well-being of senior citizens," he added, stressing that the bill offered special help for those with low incomes or facing catastrophic costs.
But Democrats, armed with their own plan to provide drug coverage, criticized the Republican measure as a rerun of GOP attacks on the giant health care program for the elderly. "It's not Medicare," said Rep. Pete Stark (D-Hayward) of the GOP proposal, which relies on private insurance companies, aided by government subsidies, to offer coverage.
"Normally, the lobbyists are heaping money on us hoping we'll vote one way or another," he said. "This bill heaps money on the lobbyists' clients, hoping they might write an insurance policy that might provide some Medicare members" with insurance.
The passage was a certainty in the committee, although Democrats spent hours pressing amendments and their alternative. The approval would set the stage for what is likely to be a tougher struggle next week on the House floor.
Republicans sought to blunt one Democratic charge--that private insurance companies would not offer policies for sale. Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield), the chief architect of the bill, circulated a letter from a top official at Merck-Medco, a provider of pharmaceutical benefits to health plans. "We would work to develop a prescription drug-only plan . . . nationwide in competition with others in what we expect will be a highly competitive market," it said.
Republicans demonstrated firm control of the committee proceedings, rejecting Democratic attempts to make fundamental changes in the bill.