Republican freshman Sens. David Vitter (La.) and John Thune (S.D.) are backing a reimportation bill that is identical to a House bill by Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.). The senators have been meeting with Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who last year tried to force consideration of the issue by holding up the nomination of Mark McClellan to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
If the Republican and Democratic senators can reach agreement on a compromise bill — or rally around one of the two existing proposals — they would likely have the political strength to prevail over the objections of leadership and pass a bill through the Senate.
In an interview, Thune warned, “We’re all going to vote for whatever gets to the floor. That’s why the leadership would be wise to bring Vitter’s bill to the floor. Something’s going to pass.”
The reimportation issue has caused a bitter confrontation between Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). Last year, after holding up the McClellan nomination, Dorgan eventually relented. But he expressed great disappointment that Frist did not meet what Dorgan considered a commitment to take up the bill.
The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) last year failed to report out a bill under the leadership of Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). Frist has emphasized the need to guarantee the safety of drugs imported from other countries and wants to move a bill through the regular committee process.
Vitter, in an interview, said he had a “really good meeting” with Dorgan on the matter, saying they were brainstorming on how a reimportation measure might move on the floor. Asked whether the two maintained separate bills, Vitter replied, “For the time being.”
Vitter last month called the Dorgan bill too bureaucratic. He said his bill has the best chance of being enacted: “This is a bill we passed through the House, the only bill that’s passed either body.”
He said that he and Dorgan were “trying to figure out a way to pass this and avoid a conference if at all possible.” He said co-sponsors had tried to keep their version of the bill more “streamlined.”
The other co-sponsors of Vitter’s bill are Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Ken Salazar (D-Colo.). The companion House bill introduced by Gutknecht has 77 co-sponsors. Gutknecht has said his goal is to attract 220 co-sponsors.
“I certainly think the bill has major support in the Senate at this point,” Vitter said. He said he and Dorgan have “cooperated and supported each other’s efforts in every way.”
But the two camps have not yet reached an agreement. Dorgan, in a separate interview, made a pitch for his own version, noting that he has 31 co-sponsors for his bill, and said he was pleased with Vitter’s involvement. “The bill that we’ve negotiated has been very carefully negotiated,” he said. “We are going to have to force a vote on this because I don’t think it’s going to come voluntarily from leadership.”
Dorgan’s bill has seven Republican co-sponsors. If Thune, Vitter and DeMint were to join with those seven Republicans on a single approach, and Democrats backed it, they would be close to the 60 votes needed to overcome a Senate filibuster. Dorgan has maintained that many additional Republicans also are supportive of his approach.
Thune, whose triumphant race over former Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) was significantly aided by Frist and other GOP leaders, said he prefers Vitter’s approach.
“I’d like to see the leadership pick up his bill and move it,” he said. “It’d be great for David and great for us if our leadership” brought the bill to the floor. He then issued a warning: “They can be proactive about it, or they can wait for it to be offered as an amendment and pass with 79 votes.”
Earlier this year, Dorgan threatened to hold up the nomination of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, but backed off after reaching a deal with Senate HELP Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).
However, there is a growing controversy about the details of that deal. Dorgan maintains that Enzi would hold a hearing on his bill within 90 days of Leavitt’s confirmation, but a Senate Republican source disputes that characterization. The source said Enzi agreed only to hold hearings on the general issue of reimportation, which he did in February.
In arguing against reimportation, pharmaceutical industry officials have been touting a recent poll showing that 71 percent of respondents do not favor the legislation because it would legalize reimporting pharmaceuticals from more than 22 countries, including Latvia and Slovenia.
Bob Cusack contributed to this report.