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Republicans Pick Up Democratic Support on Medicare as Vote Nears

House Republicans plan to pass their Medicare drug plan Thursday with the help of conservative Democrats, even though they acknowledge that a number of GOP conservatives will defect.

The GOP appeared to reach the threshold necessary to the approve the bill after at least nine Democrats joined wavering Republicans in a Wednesday morning meeting with President Bush at the White House, sources said.

“Ever since I was elected in 1998 I have worked to improve the lot of seniors when it comes to prescription drugs. Any reasonable plan that advances that goal, I’d have to consider,” Rep. Ken Lucas (D-Ky.) said in explaining why he attended the meeting.

It is not clear, however, if Bush’s personal involvement swayed Lucas.

“I just listened,” he said, adding that he made no commitment one way or the other as to how he will vote Thursday.

Democrats who support the plan on principle are sensitive to the political consequences of their decisions and are being careful not to further alienate their leaders.

Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) said he was asked to the meeting but declined the invitation, having already decided to vote for the bill crafted by Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) and Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.).

“I made an independent determination that what is in the best interest of North Dakota is to pass the Thomas bill,” Pomeroy said.

“I’m not part of any group effort [to build support for the bill],” he continued, defending his position. “I’m not trying to sink the leadership.”

Pomeroy said he does not think the GOP plan is perfect but the reality is that it is the only way seniors are going to get prescription drug help right now.

“As the Rolling Stones said, you can’t always get what you want … so you get what you need,” Pomeroy said.

As for Pomeroy’s decision to buck his leaders — who are urging Democrats to vote down the House plan — he said it was a tough one.

“It’s not the most comfortable week I’ve had around here,” he said.

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) would not say how many Democrats he expects to lose but said he is having success convincing Caucus members that even though they want to provide seniors with prescription drug coverage, the Republican plan is not the right way to do so.

“It will destroy Medicare — not right away but eventually — and there’s no guarantee of coverage,” Hoyer said, repeating his pitch.

He expects to lose “some” Democrats “but not a lot,” he said in looking forward to Thursday’s floor fight.

As for fighting fire with fire and trying to pick up disaffected Republicans, Hoyer said that would be difficult.

“They’ve been pretty successful at getting their Members to ‘belly up to the bar’” at crunch time, he said of the GOP leadership.

Meanwhile Republicans continued to try to shore up their Conference on Wednesday, bringing Members to the White House and having Bush make direct calls to them.

Some conservatives dislike the bill because they fear it creates a new entitlement program while other Republicans think it may not work.

“We’re concerned we’ll lose conservatives [but] our strategy is to win first with just Republicans and then add Democrats,” said John Feehery, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

While the final vote ultimately may be close, Feehery predicted victory for his party.

“Democrats can’t vote against it,” Feehery said, adding they’d be “the only caucus against a prescription drug plan” for seniors if they do.

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