By Jeffrey Young - 07/27/05 12:00 AM EDT
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) gave a bill allowing the importation of cheaper prescription drugs from abroad a serious boost when he agreed to hold at least one floor vote on it.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), an active proponent of expanded drug importation, had placed a brief hold on the confirmation vote for Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Lester Crawford last Monday. Vitter lifted the hold only after he was satisfied that Frist would not block his efforts to move legislation on drug imports.
Vitter said the vote would most likely occur during the upcoming debate on the agriculture spending bill that funds the FDA, which will occur some time in the fall, Vitter said.
He characterized the vote on the importation amendment as a test of the issue’s support in the Senate; any drug-importation language that may be attached to the bill would likely be stripped in conference, he said.
Vitter said Frist told him that he would “work in good faith” to hold a separate debate and vote on the legislation if the amendment receives more than 60 votes this time around, although Frist did not specify exactly when floor time would be set aside for the bill.
Frist’s office initially denied that any agreement had been reached between the majority leader and Vitter, emphasizing that Crawford had strong enough backing to overcome any attempt to block his confirmation; Crawford ultimately received 78 votes.
Later, Frist spokeswoman Amy Call clarified that, although the majority leader made no promises about when votes would take place, Vitter’s description of their arrangement was accurate. “While there is no absolute commitment, Senator Frist will work in good faith to find floor time,” said Call.
The measure will reach the 60-vote threshold to obtain a second vote, Vitter predicted. “Reimportation, in general, has clear majority support,” he said. The sponsors of drug-importation legislation have long expressed deep confidence than any bill that opens the border to cheaper medicines would easily attract at least 60 votes.
The measure has strong support in the Senate but still faces long odds to becoming law — mainly because of opposition from the White House — even though it is popular among voters.
“People want this,” Vitter insisted.
Vitter also noted that advocates of drug importation are looking for “every reasonable opportunity” to get a bill on the floor and will not rule out seeking an alternative vehicle at any time despite the agreement with Frist.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) was not notified of the deal as of yesterday, according to his press secretary, Jenny Manley. The amendment might be subject to a parliamentary tactic known as a point of order, which will question whether it is germane to agriculture spending, she said.
Manley also said the amendment might be allowed because the measure funds the FDA, although Cochran opposes importation and prefers that any legislation be taken up by authorizing committees.
The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee has sole jurisdiction over drug imports, according to panel spokesman Craig Orfield. Bringing a measure to the floor in the way Frist has promised would bypass HELP Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).
Orfield said that “it stands to reason” that Enzi would oppose the move and would prefer to see the issue handled by his committee.
Vitter’s measure parallels a House bill sponsored by Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.); a nearly identical measure passed the House in 2004 over the objections of the GOP leadership and the White House.
Vitter, a freshman senator who served in the House before winning a Senate seat last year, also described the pharmaceutical industry’s efforts against Gutknecht’s bill as “the most intense lobbying I’ve ever experienced.”
Gutknecht has identified several possible vehicles for his legislation, according to his spokesman, Bryan Anderson, who declined to name them. Gutknecht will decide when to offer his bill when the right opportunity presents itself, Anderson indicated.
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) is the author of a separate bill, which has attracted a bipartisan group of 30 co-sponsors; Vitter’s bill has three.
Vitter and others downplayed the differences between the Senate sponsors.
“We agree on basically 98 percent” of the policy, Vitter said.
“We’re all working toward the same goal,” echoed Dorgan spokesman Barry Piatt.
Drug-importation supporters “have been working closely together from the beginning” on strategy, Vitter added.
A modified version of the Dorgan bill was added to a measure to reauthorize the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) after a heated debate featuring Dorgan and Vitter — with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) among their allies — against Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). Vitter also added language that brought the Dorgan bill closer to his own, he said.
Stevens reportedly threatened to place a hold on the FTC bill until the importation amendment was removed. He also predicted that Enzi would block the bill. Enzi has not said what his intentions are.
“It would not be in [his] character to, you know, lash out about that,” Orfield said.
While Vitter and Dorgan continue to maintain that each prefers his own bill, neither has closed the door on backing whatever measure comes to the floor. Gutknecht routinely points to the fact that his bill already passed the House.
“We’ll wait to see what comes out” of the Senate before judging whether to alter their bill, Anderson said.
The proponents ideally hope to move legislation that is the same or very similar in both chambers to avoid dooming the bills in a conference committee assembled by the Republican leadership.
“When you have the leadership of both chambers against you, conference committee is not where you want to end up,” Vitter said. But a conference committee may be inevitable, Piatt added, because a stand-alone bill on the Senate floor would be subject to amendments.