KWAME HOLMAN: A large group of House Democrats walked to the floor of the chamber this morning and when they didn't get their way turned on their heels and walked out. Democrats were angry that at 2:30 this morning, the Republican-controlled rules committee decided they wouldn't be allowed to offer, debate or vote on their package of prescription drug benefits when the issue came to the floor later in the day. The Democrats made one last attempt to offer their plan this morning before heading toward the door. The walkout wasn't spontaneous. A podium, a bank of microphones and television cameras already were in place on the capitol steps when the Democrats got outside.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: What is happening on the floor of the House of Representatives today is an outrage to the senior citizens and the people of the United States and this act will not stand. Shame on the Republican party for not giving us an alternative.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Democrats' prescription drug plan, twice as costly as the Republicans, would provide coverage for all Medicare beneficiaries who would pay fixed premiums, no annual deductible costs and receive total coverage for drug purchases over $4,000. The Republican plan would make prescription drug coverage optional to seniors through private insurers. Seniors would pay a $250 annual deductible, adjustable premiums and receive total coverage for prescription costs over $6,000.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: The Republican plan is a sham. It's a hoax. It's a political fig leaf. It is their attempt to follow their pollsters' admonition that they must have a plan but it doesn't matter what it says. Well, let me tell you something: The American people care what it says. They want a good drug benefit and we will not rest until we're able to bring that drug benefit to the floor of the House.
KWAME HOLMAN: In less dramatic fashion, a group of House Republicans responded to the Democrats' walkout.
REP. DEBORAH PRYCE, (R) Ohio: They don't want the debate to be centered on the merits of this good bipartisan legislation. They want to close it down. So let them rant and rave. Let them have their parade. Let them stall. Let them dilly dally. We will get this vote and we will get this debate on the floor for the American people to see in spite of them once again.
KWAME HOLMAN: After making their points before the media, Democrats returned to the House chamber but held up debate on prescription drugs by forcing a series of time-consuming procedural motions and votes.
SPOKESMAN: Mr. Speaker, I make a point of order against consideration of the resolution.
SPOKESMAN: The yeas and nays are ordered. Those in favor of consideration of the bill will....
KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon, the debate finally got underway with each side launching attacks against the others' prescription drug plan.
REP. J.D. HAYWORTH, (R) Arizona: Our friends on the left, advocates of big government, say, the Washington bureaucrats do it. Let's put bureaucrats in charge of the pharmacies. Let's put the bureaucrats in charge of the plans." We say, "no, let's insure freedom of choice. Give seniors choice. Let them decide what is best." Mr. Speaker, my colleagues --simply stated -- the plan on the left would fill the medicine bottles of America with red tape.
REP. ROBERT WEXLER, (D) Florida: Instead of providing prescription coverage for seniors, this bill provides political coverage for Republicans -- premiums are 40% higher than the Democratic plan. Worst of all it puts seniors desperate for life-saving drugs at the mercy of greedy HMO's. Sorry, mom, one year you're covered, the next you're not.
REP. PATRICK KENNEDY, (D) Rhode Island: Every time seniors are going to have to share their medications because they can't afford them, they're going to remember this vote. And I'll tell you when they're really going to remember this vote: They're going to remember this vote in the November election -- when they vote to return a Democratic majority to the House of Representatives because this Republican plan is nothing more than empty promises. You know what you get when you get empty promises? You get empty pill jars.
REP. CASS BALLENGER, (R) North Carolina: Mr. Chairman, I'm a senior citizen. I actually am that proper age and have Medicare. Each night I use Zocor and Cardura and Claridin D and Timoptin, but I pay for them myself. We in Congress earn over $130,000 per year. We should not receive government assistance. Let's help the poor who need it. The Democrat plan would take care of us, the Kennedys, the Houghtons and the Ballengers. We're too rich. We don't need it. Nobody in Congress should get it and yet the Democrat plan allows it. I'll yield back the balance of my time.
KWAME HOLMAN: While the debate in the House crept along, President Clinton held a white House news conference and added his opinion of the Republican prescription drug.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Let me make it specific and clear. This plan would not guarantee affordable prescription drugs to single senior citizens with incomes above $12,600 a year or to senior couples with incomes above $16,600 a year. We have all heard countless, countless stories of those with crushing medical burdens. If they could get these prescription drugs would have their lives lengthened and the quality of their lives improved.
KWAME HOLMAN: The President already has threatened to veto the Republican plan, but the House will have to approve it first. This evening, that effort was delayed further by more Democratic stall tactics, the latest: An objection over the use of a chart on the floor of the House.
SPOKESMAN: I object to the use of this exhibit, Mr. Speaker, pursuant to cause 6 of rule 17.
SPOKESMAN: Gentleman from California?
SPOKESMAN: Mr. Speaker, I ask unanimous consent that during consideration of hr-4680, all members be permitted to use exhibits in debate
SPOKESMAN: Is there objection?
SPKOKESMAN: I object.
SPOKESMAN: The chair did hear an objection.
KWAME HOLMAN: After a 15-minute vote, the chart was aloud. -- The chart was allowed.