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Democratic Opponents Fail to Block Medicare Bill

Democratic senators for a second time failed to block the Medicare prescription drug bill (search) from moving forward Monday after a procedural vote didn't get the support needed to take the measure back to the drawing table.

Senate lawmakers have now agreed to hold a final vote Tuesday on the package designed to have the government co-pay seniors' prescription drug costs.

Liberal Democrats opposed to the bill tried several measures to prevent lawmakers from reaching a final vote.

In the afternoon, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle tried to block the bill on a procedural move that rightly pointed out that the bill exceeds the 2004 budget ceiling for health care spending. But only two votes short of prevailing, the Senate agreed 61-39 to waive the Budget Act.

"We will continue to fight," Daschle, of South Dakota, said after the vote. "We will continue to ensure that the promise to our seniors through Medicare, to provide them with the care they want and need, will be there when they need it."

Earlier in the day, Senate Republicans succeeded in limiting debate on the 10-year, $400 billion drug package. The Senate voted 70-29 to invoke cloture — a motion that creates a time frame for wrapping up debate and moving to a final vote. Cloture is usually the largest hurdle for getting a bill to a vote because it effectively ends any threatened filibusters. Sen. Richard Shelby (search), R-Ala., did not vote.

But Republicans had to wait on celebrating what could be a major victory for President Bush as he prepares to tout his domestic agenda for the 2004 election. Daschle promised several "budget points of order" that would have required 60 votes to pass. But during the first vote on the Budget Act, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., wrapped all points of order into the one vote.

Sen. Ted Kennedy (search), D-Mass., another opponent of the bill, also debated whether to require the full 30 hours of debate that is allotted after a cloture vote but seldom used. He later conceded, allowing the Senate to move forward with a Monday night vote.

Proponents of the bill said Daschle's efforts to stall a drug benefit are nothing short of sabotage.

"This is no place for partisan tricks ... everybody would like to renegotiate parts of this bill ... but we want to provide prescription drugs for our seniors," Frist said Monday.

The Medicare drug benefit will help 42 million senior citizens get cost cuts on prescription drugs. Under the legislation, the prescription drug benefit would begin in 2006. In the interim, seniors would be eligible to purchase a Medicare-backed discount drug card, at a cost estimated at $30 a year, that the administration estimates would mean savings of between 15 percent and 25 percent off retail prices. Critics argue those estimated savings are wildly inflated.

The drug benefit is also the most extensive overhaul of the giant health care program created in 1965, and if approved would provide subsidies to help lower-income seniors pay the premiums and other costs.

It also would provide subsidies to insurance companies in hopes they would offer private coverage to seniors — a provision viewed with favor by conservatives but suspicion by many Democrats.

The bill cleared the House in a pre-dawn, 220-215 vote on Saturday that followed a highly unusual maneuver in which Republicans held open the vote and woke Bush from his sleep to get him to lobby reluctant Republicans.

Bush is eager to sign the bill into law, his largest domestic priority of the year, and senior Republican sources told Fox News that the president warned conservative lawmakers during a teleconference in the middle of the night that if the bill fails then he would support a more liberal version that Democrats propose.

White House officials said Bush was making no lobbying calls to the Senate, but HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson was in and around the Senate chamber, hoping to help redeem a pledge Bush made in his 2000 campaign and repeated in last winter's State of the Union address.

Prior to the Senate vote Monday, nine Democrats announced plans to support the measure, as did Sen. James Jeffords, a Vermont independent. But presidential hopefuls Joe Lieberman, John Edwards and John Kerry all returned to Washington from the campaign trail to vote against the bill. Kerry of Massachusetts said the bill doesn't do enough for seniors.

"The test is not whether we're going to give them something. The test is whether or not we're going to do more harm than good. And I believe that when you measure the overall impact of this legislation on seniors and on the overall Medicare system, the bottom line is that this does more harm than good," he said.

The far-reaching bill would increase Medicare funding for doctors, hospitals and other health care providers, particularly in rural areas, where reimbursement levels are far below what is paid in other regions of the country. It also provides billions of dollars to companies to encourage them to retain the health coverage they provide their retirees.

For the first time, higher-earning seniors would be required to pay more for their Medicare Part B premiums than other beneficiaries. The measure also retains the current ban on the importation of lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada, and establishes tax-preferred health savings accounts for individuals with high-deductible insurance coverage.

The most contentious provision would take effect in 2010, when direct competition between traditional Medicare and the private plans begins in up to six metropolitan areas. Supporters argue that would help reduce the cost of Medicare in the long run, while opponents attack it as the leading edge of an effort by Republicans to privatize the system.

The bill has the support of the AARP, the largest seniors organization in the United States. They have been running a series of ads in favor of the bill in which older Americans ask of their representatives where is the drug help for seniors.

Some analysts and politicians have speculated that if Congress wraps up the year without passing the bill, they will suffer during the election year.

Asked whether he is concerned about negative ads being run against opponents of the bill, Daschle said, "I am most confident about the politics of this debate ... the more senior citizens see of this bill, the more outraged they will be ... it's not a question of if but how long it will be before we revisit the bill."

Fox News' Julie Asher and The Associated Press contributed to this report.