The Senate sidetracked a controversial amendment Monday that would have let Americans buy prescription medication from foreign suppliers, a move that cleared the way for action on an overhaul of the government's drug safety system.
The drug import amendment, which was tacked onto the Food and Drug Administration overhaul legislation, could save consumers billions of dollars, its sponsors said. But the pharmaceutical industry argued that the provision could flood the market with counterfeit medications, and the White House threatened to veto a bill that eased import restrictions.
That put Democrats, the Senate majority, in a bind: Though many support drug imports, they also consider the larger drug safety overhaul must-pass legislation.
So some Democrats straddled the import issue: They approved the amendment along with a requirement that imports win government certification that they are safe -- which the Bush administration is unlikely to provide. Even Democratic administrations have been reluctant to make declarations about the safety of imported medications.
The 49-40 vote to approve the requirement, offered by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), was seen as a victory for the pharmaceutical industry.
Cochran's caveat "is clearly a poison pill," said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who supports drug imports.
"Today is a day of lost opportunity," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.). He sponsored the proposal to let U.S. pharmacies import prescription drugs produced in FDA-licensed facilities in Canada and other developed countries.
Dorgan accused the drug industry of dictating prices to American consumers.
"Yes, we have price controls in America," he said. "Not government price controls, but price controls by the pharmaceutical industry."
On a voice vote, the Senate passed Dorgan's legislation -- with Cochran's addition.
"This fight is not over," Dorgan said. "We will be back."
White House officials had said they would withdraw the veto threat if the Senate included Cochran's requirement.
Cochran said he was mainly concerned about counterfeit drugs.
"Americans deserve continued access to safe and effective drugs," he said. "Serious problems exist with products from other countries."
Drug industry representatives emphasize the safety argument as well. But they also worry that opening the U.S. to imported medications would lead to government price controls like those in Canada and Europe.
The Senate is expected to finish work on the FDA drug safety bill this week.