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Grassley Performs Solo Act in Pulling Staff Out of Medicare Conference

Senate Republican leaders sought to distance themselves today from Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) decision to pull his staffers out of negotiations on a Medicare prescription drug bill.

“It was a decision, it’s important to emphasize, that Senator Grassley made on his own,” said a Senate GOP leadership aide. “This isn’t the decision of the rest of the Senate conferees or of the Senate leadership.”

The aide continued, “This isn’t something that the [Senate] leadership necessarily thought was the best approach. … We’re not going to let this get in the way of finishing this bill.”

Grassley, who is vice chairman of the Medicare conference, directed his staff on Monday to boycott bipartisan, bicameral talks on the prescription drug measure because of concerns that the staff-level discussions were not addressing a key rural health care initiative that Grassley has made his top priority this year.

“Every day that goes by, it’s less likely that these [rural health] issues will get the attention they deserve,” said Grassley spokeswoman Jill Kozeny.

Kozeny emphasized that Grassley’s Finance Committee staffers were still attending meetings with Senate conferees, but that they would not attend meetings with the staff representing conference Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), who presides over the House Ways and Means Committee.

Thomas spokeswoman Christin Tinsworth said the Californian did not want staff to discuss the $25 billion rural health care initiative because it is a “big-ticket item” that should be left to Member discussions, which will resume when Congress reconvenes next week.

Still, several Senate aides charged that Thomas appears to be holding up talks on the rural health care program in the hopes of using it as a bargaining chip in negotiations over stickier questions on how to create the $400 billion prescription drug benefit. The rural health care portions of the House and Senate bills are very similar, whereas the two chambers differ widely on how to implement the drug benefit.

“There’s no doubt that Thomas is trying to hold [the rural provisions] hostage as a negotiating tool for something else,” said a senior aide to a Democratic conferee. “Grassley sees that coming, and so he’s saying, ‘No, I don’t want you to be able to do that.’”

Still, even Democratic conferees remained perplexed at Grassley’s decision to sit out talks for the week.

“While we’re sympathetic to where he’s coming from, we don’t think disengaging is the way to go about it,” said the Democratic aide.

Meanwhile, staff for the other 15 conferees continued to meet this week, as they have nearly every day this month, to hash out other smaller issues in the bill.

“Everyone else feels comfortable plowing ahead,” said the Senate GOP leadership aide. “My belief is that at some point Senator Grassley will rejoin the conference.”

The rift over rural health care is just the latest in a series of testy exchanges between Grassley and Thomas. The two men, whose panels have jurisdiction over tax policy, Medicare and trade initiatives, publicly sparred over the President Bush’s tax cut this year and have a running feud over who will chair conference committees.

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