WASHINGTON — Over the objections of their party leaders, a breakaway bloc of Republicans early today helped push through the House a bill to give U.S. consumers access to lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada and other countries.
In a debate that split both parties, the House voted 243 to 186 to approve the bill. The vote, in a roll call that began shortly before 3 a.m. EDT, came despite strenuous opposition from the pharmaceutical industry and the Bush administration.
The measure was fueled by rising public anger over the vast disparities in drug prices inside and outside U.S. borders. In recent years, many elderly Americans have boarded buses to Canada to buy medication that costs far less than what they would have paid at home.
Passage of the bill by no means guaranteed its enactment. The Senate approved a drug-import measure last month as an amendment to a Medicare bill. But differences between the House and Senate versions are significant, and with many Republican leaders opposed to the bill, President Bush could use his clout to help kill it.
Under the House bill, the Food and Drug Administration would be required within six months to design and implement a program to allow individuals, pharmacists and drug wholesalers in the United States to import certain prescription drugs from licensed facilities in several industrialized nations.
Those nations would include Canada, members of the European Union, Australia, Israel, New Zealand and South Africa.
Mexico, however, is not among the approved nations.
The bill was sponsored by Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) and co-sponsored by Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) and 34 other Republicans -- a significant number of dissidents for a party that usually prizes discipline.
Backers said the measure would pressure drug companies to lower their prices in the United States.
"For too long, price-gouging of our seniors has gone on, subsidizing the discounts that the French, Germans, English and Canadians enjoy," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), another co-sponsor.
Critics replied that the legislation could allow unsafe drugs into the United States through counterfeit labeling. The Bush administration, in a policy statement this week, called it "dangerous legislation."
Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), a leading opponent, said the bill would allow "bogus, counterfeit, old, rotten drugs" into the country. And Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), the most senior member of the House, said imported drugs could "injure, sicken, kill or hurt the American people."
In addition, the drug industry maintains that government controls in Canada and elsewhere keep drug prices in those countries artificially low. Industry leaders assert that those price controls, if extended to the United States, would slash resources needed to research and develop new drugs.
Drug companies have significant clout in Congress. The Center for Responsive Politics, a private research group that tracks political finance, estimated that the drug industry gave federal candidates and parties $20.7 million in contributions in 2001 and 2002 -- most of it to Republicans. Companies spent millions of dollars more on lobbying.
House Republican leaders originally opposed allowing a vote on the bill. But they were forced to relent last month during a crucial roll call on a separate measure to create a $400-billion prescription-drug benefit through the Medicare program. Short of the votes they needed to pass their version of the Medicare bill, the leaders persuaded Emerson, after lengthy negotiations, to vote for it -- and the bill passed by one vote.
But in exchange, Emerson extracted a promise from House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) that the House would have a chance to vote on drug importation. House leaders also agreed not to use their formal vote-counting, or whip, operation to beat Emerson and Gutknecht. But there seemed little doubt that the opposition of Hastert, Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and other leaders was being felt by many among the Republican rank and file.
Congress in 2000 approved legislation allowing drug importation. But successive secretaries of Health and Human Services in the Clinton and Bush administrations have blocked implementation of the program, declining to certify the practice as safe.
The drug-import debate came as House and Senate lawmakers were wrestling with separate bills authorizing a new, government-subsidized prescription-drug benefit. Bush supports enactment of such a benefit under the Medicare program.
But the drug-import issue could complicate those delicate negotiations.
Senior Republicans and administration officials are seeking to block from the final Medicare bill a Senate-approved provision that would allow a one-year trial of drug importation from Canada.