JIM LEHRER: Election year politics invade the prescription drug debate, and to Kwame Holman.
KWAME HOLMAN: This morning, Bob Graham of Florida and Gordon Smith of Oregon made the latest effort to break the Senate's impasse on how best to provide a prescription drug benefit for seniors.
SEN. BOB GRAHAM: We have put together a responsible benefit that helps those who need it most: Those seniors who have the highest prescription drug costs, those who are the neediest, those with the lowest incomes.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Graham/Smith Medicare-based plan would provide seniors with full "catastrophic" coverage once a senior has spent $3,300 on prescriptions. Seniors would pay $25 a year plus a ten-dollar co-payment for each prescription. The plan also would provide full coverage of prescription drug costs for low-income seniors, those earning up to 200 percent of the poverty level.
Such seniors would pay between two and five dollars per prescription. The two Senators also claim their plan would provide up to a 30 percent discount on prescription drug costs to all beneficiaries. Graham and Smith estimate the cost of their plan to be $390 billion over ten years.
SEN. GORDON SMITH: This is the convergence of the right policy with the right opportunity. Now is the time to act, and if we do so, the great beneficiaries will be the senior citizens of this country.
KWAME HOLMAN: The plan also has the support of the largest association of retirees, the AARP.
JOHN ROTHER, AARP: I want to strongly express AARP's support for this compromise bipartisan bill, and today is the day it should pass.
KWAME HOLMAN: But the rules for this prescription drug debate require that the Graham/Smith plan, or any other, attain 60 votes to pass. And even though Graham was expected to convince most of his Democratic colleagues to support the plan, it wasn't clear Smith could persuade enough Republicans. In fact, even before Graham and Smith could unveil their plan this morning, opponents were condemning it.
SEN. JOHN BREAUX: The average number of people in the United States that are below 200 percent of poverty is 30 percent. That means 70 percent of the American elderly, 70 percent of the American elderly, would not qualify by being under 200 percent of poverty.
These are working people who have paid taxes when they were working, who are retired and now because they don't qualify as being 200 percent under poverty, all of a sudden we're going to leave them out of a Medicare program that was supposed to provide universal health coverage for all Americans.
KWAME HOLMAN: Louisiana Democrat John Breaux was one of the main supporters of the Senate's so- called "tripartisan" plan, which would have provided broader prescription drug coverage through private insurers.
But that plan couldn't attract 60 votes either. Maine's Olympia Snowe, a cosponsor of the tripartisan effort, today was outraged that Democratic leaders were trying to rush the Graham/Smith plan to the floor.
SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: I'd like to know when is the last time the United States Senate has created a $400 billion social program that has had no consideration in the Senate Finance Committee or any committee of the United States Senate and has had virtually no consideration on the floor, no amendments, just up-and-down votes. If you don't get your 60, tough luck.
KWAME HOLMAN: It's generally recognized that senior citizens are the group most in need of prescription drugs, yet least able to afford them. Seniors also are among the most likely to turn out to vote in the upcoming midterm elections. For those reasons, some members of the Senate might be feeling pressure to approve some kind of prescription drug program for seniors before the August recess. This afternoon, Assistant Minority Leader Don Nickles was convinced of it.
SEN. DON NICKLES: Now I think the Democrats are in a frantic panic, trying to say, "well, let's just pass something." They are throwing money around. They are throwing figures around, and coming up with proposals that are hundreds of billions of dollars that haven't been scrutinized. That haven't had any light shed on them. Some of us want to legislate on this, but we want to do it right-- not just try to score points in elections, but we'd like to do it right.
KWAME HOLMAN: Majority Leader Tom Daschle in turn said Republicans are too preoccupied with going home.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I don't know of anybody more anxious to go home than our Republican colleagues. Just about daily, Senator Lott has reported to me that there's a strong desire on the part of the Republican Caucus to leave as early as Friday.
Let me just say, were it not for the Republicans dragging their feet on prescription drugs, we could be there by now. That hasn't happened. Because it hasn't happened, we're left with the situation that I've just described. We're going to try to do a lot of work in a very short period of time.
KWAME HOLMAN: But by early this evening, the Graham-Smith prescription drug plan apparently still was short of the necessary 60 votes. The bill's supporters will try again in a vote set for tomorrow morning.