For Senate majority leader Tom Daschle - the man with the
toughest job on Capitol Hill - this week's defeat of a plan to help
seniors pay for prescription drugs was a bitter pill.
If the vote stands, it will mean Democrats have failed to deliver
on their signature issue in an election year, again. House
Republicans passed a prescription-drug plan last month; after the
final Senate vote Wednesday, they were blasting Mr. Daschle for "yet
It's also a personal hit on a leader whose defining quality is an
ability to get members of a very diverse Democratic caucus to agree -
or even to agree to disagree, but to not air their differences in
public. Daschle succeeded in rapidly moving important legislation
through the Senate after 9/11, including appropriations for homeland
defense and the USA Patriot Act. He also got through a farm bill, a
tough law on corporate accountability, and new trade authority for
Divide runs deep
But partisan divisions still run deep in the Senate. The gridlock
on prescription drugs is emblematic of the difficulties Daschle
faces there - difficulties sharpened, some say, by his own strategic
errors in pushing bills out of committee and onto the Senate floor.
"From the very beginning it's been hard to reach a consensus [on
prescription drugs]," Daschle said Wednesday. "My hope was that if
we pressed this issue on the floor, ultimately people would say,
'Look, it might not be not exactly what we wanted but it's better
than nothing.' "
But on issues as fraught as healthcare, it takes more than
holding Democrats in line to pass legislation: Overcoming a
filibuster takes 60 votes. For Daschle, that means finding support
across the aisle without losing hard-core Democrats.
In an election year, when failure to legislate can be grist for
fundraisers and damning 10-second campaign spots, that calculus is
even more complex. But if voters come to resent both parties for
failure to act, the blame could fall on incumbents.
"Our seniors back home don't understand all this haggling back
and forth that we've been doing now for two weeks," Sen. Zell Miller
(D) of Georgia said after the final vote on prescription drugs. "If
that's all we have to show for ourselves come November, I guarantee
you both parties will pay a steep price at the polls."
US healthcare costs have risen steeply since Medicare was
established in 1965. From 1960 to 2000, personal health care
spending increased from $23.4 billion to $1.1 trillion; it is
expected to pass $2.4 trillion by 2011, according to the US Health
Care Financing Administration. Outside hospitals, Medicare does not
cover the cost of prescription drugs, which have become a much more
significant part of medical treatment than in the 1960s. …