GOP Mounts Drive on Bills

Times Staff Writer

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.

On the Medicare bill, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) cited "three major concerns," which he described as a failure to control drug prices, an attempt to coerce up to 10 million elderly people to leave Medicare and join managed-care systems, and the possibility that as many as 3 million workers could lose retiree drug benefits.

On the energy legislation, Daschle praised provisions involving the production of ethanol -- a corn-based fuel that is a key issue for farm-state legislators -- but criticized others that he said would weaken environmental laws.

Still, Daschle told "Fox News Sunday," it was "too early to say" whether Democrats would filibuster either bill.

Appearing Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said of the Medicare deal: "I don't think that bill will pass the United States Senate."

But further changes to the legislation may secure Democratic support. The first Senate version, which Kennedy championed and which contained no provision for private insurers to compete with traditional Medicare, was approved June 26 on a vote of 76 to 21.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), one of just two Senate Democrats who participated in the behind-the-scenes Medicare deal, said Sunday that he hoped for "similar results" when the bill comes to a final vote. Baucus and Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), his negotiating partner, will be key to Republican hopes of averting a Medicare filibuster.

On Friday, 36 Democrats, seven Republicans and one independent sent Medicare negotiators a letter warning against private-competition provisions that could raise premiums for the elderly. If they hold together, that number of senators could sustain a filibuster. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), one of the signatories, issued a statement Sunday saying she remained "deeply concerned" about provisions of the bill, but she did not threaten a filibuster.

Among other Republicans who signed the letter were Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and John McCain of Arizona.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who also signed the letter, said in an interview Sunday that he was "looking to find a way to support" both the Medicare and energy bills.

The Senate passed its first draft of the energy bill on July 31, 84 to 14, but it has been completely rewritten by top Republicans. The ethanol deal may help win support from farm-state senators, but East and West Coast senators, more sympathetic to environmental concerns, could criticize the bill. Many Democrats fumed that their own energy experts were locked out of the GOP negotiations.

"It was almost exclusionary, and that's risky, risky business for the Republicans," Nelson said. "Some Democrats who feel they've been shut out of the process may use the process to slow down the bills."

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