WASHINGTON – The House passed legislation Thursday effectively permitting the importation of lower-cost prescription drugs from places such as Canada, Australia and Europe.
The move came as lawmakers passed a $91 billion spending measure funding farm subsidies and nutrition programs for the budget year beginning Oct. 1.
The bill, passed by a 237-18 vote, faces a promised veto from President Bush over its price tag, and the administration also opposes the drug importation provision.
The sprawling measure is the final domestic spending bill to pass the House. It contains almost $1 billion more than requested by Bush. But the overall measure is more than $10 billion below comparable costs for the current budget year because it does not contain farm disaster aid and reflects lower crop subsidy costs due to the good farm economy.
The administration "strongly opposes" the drug provision, which would effectively permit individuals, wholesalers and pharmacists to import lower cost U.S.-made and FDA-approved prescription drugs from Canada and other countries.
The White House says there is no system in place to protect consumers from counterfeit or unsafe drugs, but an administration policy statement stops short of an outright veto threat.
"I understand the intention to lower drug prices to the seniors, that is critically important," said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich. "What we're doing is throwing open the gates to every (drug) counterfeiter in the world."
A move supported by drug companies to strike the drug importation provisions from the bill was defeated 283-146.
Supporters of the idea say it would save consumers great sums by allowing them to purchase U.S.-made medications from other countries where they often sell for much lower prices than in the U.S. Under current law, consumers are permitted to buy a 90-day supply in Canada.
Overseas, drugs can cost two-thirds less than they do in the United States, where prices for brand-name drugs are among the highest in the world. In many industrialized countries, prices are lower because they are either controlled or partially controlled by government regulation.
"I would prefer to stand up for my constituents in Missouri as opposed to the pharmaceutical companies keeping competition and low prices out of this country," said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo.
Similar drug importation language has passed the House in recent years but has been forced out by GOP leaders and the White House during House-Senate negotiations.
On spending matters, the measure funds both mandatory programs such as farm subsidies — whose budgets are set according to eligibility criteria — as well as discretionary funding set by lawmakers each year.
The Women, Infants and Children program, which provides food aid to pregnant women and children, would receive $233 million, or 4 percent, more than requested by Bush.
The bill also finances farm subsidies and loan programs, whose costs have gone way down because of high commodity prices. The Commodity Credit Corp. would receive $13 billion, a $10 billion cut from current levels.
The measure also seeks to block the practice of slaughtering horses for human consumption by making it illegal to transport or export horse for that purpose. The House last year passed a bill banning horse slaughter for human consumption, but the Senate failed to act.
Tensions flared late in the debate as the House voted on a GOP motion to require a further amendment to the measure ensuring that illegal immigrants would not benefit from any programs funded by the bill. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., insisted illegal immigrants weren't eligible anyway.
The vote was close as almost 20 swing district Democrats initially supported the idea.
Just as Rep. Michael McNulty, D-N.Y., gaveled the vote to a close and said the GOP motion failed on a 214-214 tie, the tally board inside the chamber read that it had passed by a 215-213 vote. After final switches by Democrats, the tally moved back in their column.
Republicans cried "Shame, shame, shame," and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., moved for a revote.