A divided House, in a dramatic vote before dawn, approved the most fundamental transformation of Medicare in the program’s history, adopting legislation that would add a prescription drug benefit and create a large new role for private health plans in caring for the nation’s elderly.
The measure had appeared destined for defeat, but passed on a vote of 220 to 215 after the House’s GOP leaders kept the roll call open for nearly three hours until shortly before 6 a.m. as they scoured for extra votes. Knots of senior House Republicans and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson huddled repeatedly around several of the two dozen skeptical members who had initially voted against the bill — with little apparent effect — while their colleagues milled the floor and a few napped.
Through most of that time, the red lights on the voting board in the House chamber showed the tally at 216 for the measure and 218 against it. Finally, moments before 6 a.m., two Republican members, Rep. C.L. “Butch” Otter (Idaho) and Rep.Trent Franks (Ariz.) changed their minds, then another few colleagues followed suit.
Several longtime lawmakers said the roll call was the longest in their memory. The cliff-hanger vote, and the arduous efforts to pry a victory from an apparent defeat, reflected the enormous political significance of the Medicare issue and the philosophical differences — between the political parties and among factions of Republicans who hold the majority in both houses of Congress — over the changes the legislation would bring to the program.
The bill’s passage, rocky as it was, vastly increases the chances that, after years of legislative struggle, the federal government will begin to offer the help in paying for medicine that has been a rallying cry among older Americans.It handed a substantial victory to the White House, which has sought to champion Medicare changes as a major domestic accomplishment for President Bush in his reelection campaign next year.
If it was this difficult to get the bill through the House, where the majority party can simply ram through any legislation it desires, I don’t see how it possibly gets through the Senate, where a minority of 40 can block anything.