Despite President Bush's promise to veto legislation giving Medicare the power to "negotiate" drug prices, the House passed the bill earlier this year by a vote of 255 to 170. Fortunately, with only 24 Republicans in favor, the measure falls far short of the 290 votes required to override a presidential veto. Now it's time for the Senate to step up to the mound and strike this bill out.
If that means a filibuster, so be it. The last thing voters want to see is a gang of Senate Republicans trying to have it both ways, voting "yea" to placate liberals because they know the president is waiting to pounce with a veto.
Time and again in the Republican-controlled Senate, the Democrat minority exercised its prerogatives under Senate rules to prevent a bill or judicial nominee from passing unless there were 60 votes. Sure, it was frustrating for the slim Republican majority (55 members in the 109th Congress), but the Democrats used the Senate precisely as the Founding Fathers intended: They prevented an impassioned and small majority from running roughshod over a large minority on issues of vital national importance.
Now, in the 110th Congress, the Democrats control the Senate by an even narrower majority (51 to 49, with two Independents usually voting with the Democrats). Still, they haven't let this razor-thin majority dampen their newfound electoral hubris. The Republican minority would be well within its rights to insist on 60 votes to pass a measure that violates the conservative, free-market, economic-growth principles that most of its members purport to stand for.
This shouldn't be an uphill political battle for the Republicans. The facts are on their side. Even the Congressional Budget Office agrees that price controls via government price negotiations will not lower prescription drug prices or save our tax dollars. Three days before the bill passed the House, CBO Acting Director Donald Marron told Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), one of the bill's sponsors, that the Secretary of Health and Human Services "would be unable to negotiate prices across the broad range of covered Part D drugs that are more favorable than those obtained by [the plans] under current law."
There is one catch: Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has watered down the House bill to entice the president to sign price negotiations into law. Baucus supported the original legislation establishing the Medicare Prescription Drug program, including the prohibition on the federal government's negotiating the price of drugs, so he's no fanatic on the issue. In the Finance Committee markup, he simply removed the prohibition on government price negotiations, thus stopping short of actually requiring them, as the House bill does.
This empty gesture won't make the bill any less dangerous in the long run. If the House bill were an unloaded gun, any Senate bill that allows for price negotiations would be an unloaded gun with the safety on. It makes little difference either way. In legislative terms, it would be a simple matter to load the clip and pull the trigger on America's seniors, so to speak. That's why the filibuster is necessary.
The prospect of a Senate filibuster doesn't take our president off the hook, either. He needs to make it clear promptly -- just as he did with the House bill -- that even a watered-down Senate bill will draw his veto. If the president goes veto-shy now, after being so quick on the draw in the House, his opponents will be emboldened, and America's seniors will suffer.
This bill is the first serious test for the Senate Republican minority and the president in the face of the Democrats' new agenda. If they fail, Medicare's bureaucrats will negotiate their way into rationing drugs and stifling the development of life-enhancing drugs.
All America's eyes are now on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Like a relief pitcher, he needs to put an end to this ballgame. The president and stalwart House Republicans have already given him two outs. Senator Baucus is stepping up to the plate. Strike'm out, Mitch.