Drug Entitlement Survives House by One Vote

Forty-five minutes had already passed during the prolonged late-night vote in the House of Representatives on the proposal to create a new federal prescription drug entitlement (H.R. 1). Rep. Mike Pence (R.-Ind.) had already cast his vote-a firm “no.”

“To have a Republican majority create a new entitlement is unacceptable,” Pence had argued in an interview with HUMAN EVENTS earlier that day.

The minutes ticked by in the early morning hours of June 27, and the vote (supposed to take place in a strict 15-minute time period) was still stuck in a tie at 215 to 215, with only one vote left outstanding.

Pence and others had urged conservatives to oppose the bill, and they had mustered about 20 “no” votes-nearly enough, with the Democratic opposition, to sink the Bush-backed bill. Even two of the 2004 Senate candidates whom President Bush had personally lobbied-Representatives Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.) and Richard Burr (N.C.)-had joined the opposition.

But as he stood on the House floor that morning, Pence knew their efforts would probably fail. The House leadership would let the voting continue indefinitely as White House operatives made their rounds, cajoling and begging and making promises to convince Republican holdouts to support the bill. It was only a matter of time.

“I was standing in the middle aisle, and Patrick Kennedy [D.-R.I.] was standing there,” Pence recalled. The son of the revered liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy (D.-Mass.) had opposed the Republican-authored bill as being too stingy. His father, however, had endorsed the similar Senate bill.

As young Kennedy became visibly impatient with the protracted vote Pence walked over and addressed him.

“Patrick,” he said, “I think if you just wander around our side here and tell everybody how much your dad likes this legislation, we could probably get out of here in five minutes.”

Kennedy exploded with laughter.

But most Republicans, even conservatives, had not seen the wisdom in that joke: that anything Ted Kennedy wants is probably bad for conservatives. Disappointingly, several of the House’s best-known conservatives supported the bill (see chart below, and House rollcall, page 24).

Even congressmen who had opposed the plan for weeks were arm-twisted into supporting it at the last minute, so that it passed by a plurality of just one vote, 216 to 215.

Many changed their votes based on promises that new provisions would be added in the conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill-promises that may or may not be kept.

Perhaps the most dramatic flip-flopper was Rep. Steve King (R.-Iowa), a freshman with a solid conservative reputation. Just hours before the vote, King gave an interview to HUMAN EVENTS in which he even anticipated the one-vote finish.

“I’ve told leadership I’m a ‘no,’ and I’ve said the same thing to the Vice President,” King said. “It’s a tough vote-I’m not going to tell you it isn’t-but you have to do your conscience.”

King also employed the familiar conservative arguments against the bill. “It’s a large entitlement bill that’s got . . . the potential to grow from its current size and multiply itself many times over in the upcoming years,” he said. “We have 76% of the seniors in this country that have their own prescription drug plan. This plan puts things in motion that’s going to incent [sic] at least some of them to leave their private plan and go on the government plan, which is going to grow and swell that.”

But that night, less than one hour before the floor vote began around 1:30 a.m., House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R.-Calif.) coaxed King into voting “aye.” King told HUMAN EVENTS later that he had been promised that the conference committee would add an Iowa-friendly provision.

Two other congressmen, Representatives Butch Otter (R.-Idaho) and Jo Ann Emerson (R.-Mo.), changed their votes from “no” to “aye” on the floor. For Otter, this was a second surrender, as the normally solid right-winger had also voted “aye” last year when Republicans first passed a prescription drug plan. A spokesman said that Otter’s vote-switch was based on minor bill details, and came after he had received assurances that minor provisions important to him would survive the conference committee.

Emerson, on the other hand, had been one of only eight Republicans to buck the President in 2002 by voting “no.” This time, her spokesman confirmed, she was promised a floor vote on the re-importation of drugs that are price-controlled in some foreign countries-a measure that she supports.

Although the meager one-vote victory in the House will strengthen conservatives’ hand in negotiations-so that the final bill more closely resembles the less-generous House version of the bill-Pence was not optimistic.

“I’ve never seen a bill get better in conference,” he said, holding out only slim hope of blocking the bill after the conference. But he added that Republicans should not assume that a “no” vote would be a political liability.

“I am getting 20 or 30-to-one e-mails thanking me for my vote and encouraging me to remain strong,” he said.