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Drug Bill Has 51 Senate Votes

With 51 Senators now apparently backing legislation to empower the government to negotiate lower Medicare drug prices, Senate Democratic leaders are pledging to help Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) force a vote on the issue.

“We will help them however we can,” said Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

During the Senate’s budget floor debate last month, a vote on that issue failed, 49-50. But two of those “no” voters — Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) — have indicated to Snowe and Wyden that they would likely support the prescription drug negotiating authority proposal if it came to the Senate floor again.

Their votes would give Snowe and Wyden 51 votes for their proposal.

“It was a very close question in terms of that original vote, but we have a majority now,” Wyden said.

The current legislation, in fact, would be stronger than the nonbinding amendment that failed, because it would explicitly empower the secretary of Health and Human Services to negotiate lower drug prices.

Wyden said it was unclear exactly when he and Snowe might bring the issue back up for another vote.

“I’m looking for any potential [legislative] vehicle,” said Wyden. “It’s just a matter of time before we get another vote.”

Snowe echoed that sentiment, saying: “We’ll have to figure out a point down the road where we can vote on this. It’ll be instrumental in lowering the cost” of the drug program, which has increased significantly since Congress passed it.

The 2003 Medicare prescription drug law expressly prohibits the secretary of Health and Human Services from negotiating with drug companies for lower prices on prescription drugs under the new Medicare drug benefit, which will be available to eligible seniors starting in 2006.

Even before the Medicare prescription drug bill passed Congress, Snowe and Wyden, along with most Democrats and a handful of Republicans, have been fighting to give HHS the authority to use its buying power to negotiate lower prices, much in the same way the Veterans’ Affairs Department currently does for veterans.

But House and Senate GOP leaders, as well as the White House, have opposed granting such authority because they say it would constitute government price controls on prescription medications.

Because rules in the House are much more favorable to the majority leadership, proponents of negotiating authority face a much tougher road in that chamber.

Even in the Senate, passage is not assured. To secure all 51 votes, Snowe and Wyden may still have to tweak their larger bill to institute drug negotiating authority in order to keep Smith on board.

Smith said he voted against Snowe’s original budget amendment because he is generally reluctant to tinker with a law that has not yet been fully implemented.

However, he added that it is “probably wise” to go ahead and give the HHS secretary negotiating authority. He said he is open to continuing talks with Snowe and Wyden about the overall thrust of their bill, which includes other changes to the Medicare prescription drug law.

Snowe said she had not talked to Smith since the budget debate, but she expressed optimism that a future vote would result in passage.

The Snowe amendment to the budget resolution would not have actually given HHS negotiating authority, but would have assumed that the law would be changed in order to save the federal government money.

Beyond Smith, Snowe also has the backing of Specter, who may have voted against her budget amendment erroneously during a 26-vote marathon.

A Specter spokesman would not confirm whether the Senator voted in error or not, but he acknowledged that Specter supports giving Medicare officials the ability to negotiate drug prices for beneficiaries. Indeed, Specter introduced a bill in the last Congress to do just that.

Senate Democratic leaders promised to help Snowe and Wyden get another vote on the issue after leaders of both parties convinced the two to forgo a second vote on the issue during the budget debate.

Indeed, Snowe realized that she had 51 votes for the proposal the same day her amendment to the budget resolution failed, and she originally told Senate GOP leaders that she was going to bring it back up for a revote before the budget resolution passed, GOP sources say.

However, both Snowe and Wyden agreed to stand down after realizing that reopening debate on the prescription drug amendment would trigger revotes on a host of other issues, including a major Democratic victory in increasing the amount of education funding by $5.4 billion.

“It was a very hard call for both Ron Wyden and Olympia,” said Durbin. “It would have reopened a lot of questions and called for a lot more votes and possibly revoting” the education amendment.

Other Republicans who support prescription-drug negotiating authority include, Sens. Sam Brownback (Kan.), Susan Collins (Maine), John McCain (Ariz.), Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), and Lindsey Graham (S.C.). On the Democratic side, Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.) were the only two to vote against the proposal on the budget resolution.

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