October 31, 2005

October 31, 2005 | Commentary on Legal Issues

Legislative Lowdown -- Senators Make Bid to Delay Prescription Drug Plan

This week saw a dramatic development in the maturing effort to implement the "Katrina Doctrine" (the President's call for Congress to pay for the recovery costs associated with the recent hurricanes through offsetting spending cuts).

Fiscal conservatives cheered as a courageous group of seven Republican senators-Tom Coburn (Okla.), John McCain (Ariz.), John Ensign (Nev.), John Sununu (N.H.), Sam Brownback (Kan.), and Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina-unveiled an aggressive package of spending cuts that would save as much as $115 billion over the next two years.

Calling themselves the "Fiscal Watch Team," their most ambitious proposal is to delay for two years the most expensive portion of the new Medicare prescription drug plan, which would underwrite the prescription drug costs for all 40 million seniors, rich and poor alike. Set to go into effect in January, this benefit would be the single largest expansion of an entitlement program ever.

The senators make the politically shrewd suggestion that the relatively inexpensive ATM-like prescription drug discount cards now in use by millions of lower-income seniors continue, with Uncle Sam's doubling the amount it contributes to the cards of the poorest seniors to $1,200. By not subsidizing the prescription drug costs incurred by millions of middle- and upper-income seniors, the savings to taxpayers would exceed $40 billion.

Fiscal Sanity

With Medicare's cost expected to rise by an astounding $50 billion next year, from $290 billion to $340 billion in 2006, the senators view the controversial benefit as an essential ingredient in their recipe to restore fiscal sanity.

What are the chances that such a radical proposal, one that would eviscerate the very program the President points to as his defining domestic policy achievement, might prevail on the Senate floor? My own review of the prospects for this idea suggest, surprisingly, that it's anything but a pie-in-the-sky notion.

Let's conduct a modest thought experiment to assess the prospects for the senators' Medicare proposal and assess whether it might attract the essential 51 votes:

We start with the seven Republicans who signed on to the spending plan. It's important to note that one of these senators, Brownback, supported the drug benefit in 2003. Total: 7.

Add Republican Senators Chuck Hagel (Neb.), Trent Lott (Miss.), Judd Gregg (N.H.) and Lincoln Chafee (R.I.). Each voted against the benefit in 2003, fearing its long-term fiscal consequences. The liberal Chafee's logic in opposing the benefit may come as the biggest surprise. "Expanding an entitlement," he said then, "is going to add to the deficits." Total: 11.

Add Sen. Jeff Sessions (R.-Ala.), who, regretting his support for the benefit, led an effort in 2004 to cap the new program's outlays. Sessions ranks as among the most stalwart fiscal conservatives in the Senate. Total: 12.

Whip Count

Add Sen. Richard Burr (R.-N.C.), who as a House member initially voted against the House-passed version of the program before ultimately supporting the final deal. Burr possesses an admirable rebellious streak when it comes to spending, as evidenced by his recent support of Coburn's effort to redirect funds from the infamous Alaska "bridge to nowhere" to a Louisiana bridge damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Total: 13.

Add the 35 liberal Democrats and Sen. Jim Jeffords (I.-Vt.), who also opposed the benefit, although for an entirely different set of reasons (they argued the benefit should have been considerably larger). Of course, they may very well reason that even an inadequate benefit is better than no benefit at all, but opposing the Fiscal Watch Team's proposal would place them in the potentially unwelcome political position of voting for the benefit after having first opposed it. Arguably, the proposal's protection of low-income seniors could provide enough protective coloration to enable these Senate liberals to align with their ideological polar opposites. Total: 49.

Should all this come to pass, the Fiscal Watch Team would then need to attract the votes of only two additional senators. The 11 Democrats who supported the benefit in 2003 hail largely from conservative "red" states such as Nebraska, Montana, the Dakotas, Arkansas and Louisiana and certainly would be fair game, given the extent to which fiscal concerns have come to the forefront in these states.

Add freshman moderate Sen. Ken Salazar (D.-Colo.), Sen. Joe Lieberman (D.-Conn.), and any of a number of Republicans who, like Brownback, may have developed misgivings over the $8.7 trillion that the benefit will add to the nation's unfunded debt, and a winning floor strategy may not be as far-fetched as one might think.

Mike Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

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First appeared in Human Events