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GOP Mounts Drive on Bills

Party leaders seek unity on expansive Medicare and energy legislation. Senior Democrats say it's too soon to consider Senate filibusters.

November 17, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — With two long-coveted legislative victories -- on a national energy policy and a Medicare prescription-drug benefit -- within reach, President Bush and Republican congressional leaders began an all-out drive Sunday to assemble coalitions that could turn the bills into law.

As the mammoth bills head toward final votes, the GOP's main challenges in the next few days are to hold party ranks in the House -- especially on a $400-billion Medicare expansion that dismays many conservatives -- and to fend off Democratic filibusters against both bills in the Senate.

Enactment of the two pieces of legislation would enable Bush to claim that Washington's perennial gridlock on two highly controversial domestic issues has been broken by the first full year of Republican control of both the legislative and executive branches in half a century. Failure on either, or both, would reinforce Democratic claims that Bush is steering the country too far to the right to get things done.

The Medicare bill would be the largest expansion of the government health program since its inception in 1965, offering a long-sought prescription-drug benefit -- but it would also foster the role of private insurers and encourage competition between managed-care plans and traditional Medicare.

The energy bill offers billions of dollars in tax breaks and other incentives to promote energy production and conservation, new rules to improve a vulnerable interstate electric grid and many provisions that environmentalists criticize and industry lobbyists embrace, including construction of a pipeline to bring natural gas from Alaska to the lower 48 states.

Prospects for passage of both bills in the House appear good, advocates say, but battles may lie ahead in the Senate.

After announcing back-to-back deals Friday and Saturday on legislation written behind closed doors, GOP leaders acknowledged Sunday that the pressure is on to produce votes. To win, they must herd some cautious, nervous or even reluctant lawmakers into line behind enthusiastic supporters.

"We're not going to take either of these bills for granted," House Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri, the chief GOP nose-counter in the chamber, said in an interview. "These are both important. I'm confident we'll get both of them done on the House floor. The whip's team and all of the leadership will be working hard to see that both of these bills are accomplished, and hopefully by the end of this week."

Bush said Sunday that he too would weigh in.

"I'm pleased we've come this far" on Medicare, he told reporters at the White House. "And I think there's going to be immense pressure on members of both the House and the Senate to support this bill."

The president added: "I know I will be actively pushing the bill."

The energy bill, though stripped of Bush's plan to drill for oil and gas in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, also is a top administration priority.

With 229 seats in the 435-member House, Republicans have the advantage of rules that allow a simple majority for passage. When push comes to shove -- and it certainly will on both issues -- House Republican leaders almost never lose.

Time after time in recent years, they have won tough votes by the narrowest of margins. The first version of this year's Medicare prescription-drug bill was a case in point: It passed 216 to 215 on June 27 after the leaders leaned heavily on Republican dissenters to fold.

GOP leaders predict a larger margin this time, though they have to contend with some Republicans upset at the bill's 10-year cost and others who are disappointed that the bill fails to give a green light to the re-importation of lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada that were made in the U.S.

On the Democratic side, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco on Sunday denounced the bill as a giveaway to drug companies and managed-care providers.

"Democrats have yet to see the details of this very partisan backroom deal, but from what we know about it, it is disastrous for seniors," she said.

Her criticism signaled the likelihood that most House Democrats would vote against the legislation. But with only 205 seats on her side, and some defections certain, Pelosi may be helpless to stop approval.

The first version of the House energy bill passed easily on April 11 by a vote of 247 to 175. There seems little doubt that the final version will also sail through.

Senate Republicans, with just 51 seats in the 100-member chamber, face a far trickier challenge.

Under Senate rules, the Democratic minority needs only 41 votes to block final action on a bill by talking it to death. Although senior Democrats on Sunday stopped short of saying they would filibuster the energy and Medicare bills, they did complain strongly about key provisions and were still pushing for last-minute changes.

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