Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and other Democratic promised to beef up the Medicare prescription drug benefit as part of healthcare reform, a move that won immediate praise from the powerful AARP.

Reid, along with Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee took to the Senate floor to announce their pledge to close the so-called donut hole, a gap in the Medicare Part D drug benefit during which some seniors must pay full price for their medications.

"We have already taken the first steps to fix this in the current bill, closing the gap by half and by an additional $500 for 2010.  Because I am committed to saving lives, saving money and saving Medicare, I am committed to fully closing it, once and for all," Reid said. “Once we pass this bill, we will do so in our conference committee with the House, whose bill already closes the gap."

The AARP, which endorsed the House bill and has been intensely courted by Senate Democrats and the White House to put its weight behind the upper chamber's measure, responded swiftly with praise.

"We are encouraged by the pledge of support from Leader Reid and Sens. Baucus and Dodd.  The President pledged to close the doughnut hole by 2019, and we were proud to endorse legislation in the House of Representatives that will make that a reality.  We look forward to working with the Majority Leader, the chairmen and their colleagues to pass a final health care reform bill that meets this critical need for millions of older Americans in Medicare," AARP CEO A. Barry Rand said in a statement.

The promise to close the donut hole not only goes a long way to winning the AARP's endorsement but it appears to have helped overcome a stalemate on the Senate floor over an amendment, sponsored by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), to allow the bulk "reimportation" of cheaper prescription drugs from abroad. The Senate began debating the bill last Tuesday and is finally set to hold a vote this Tuesday.

Dorgan's measure has strong support among Democrats and enough Republicans on board that he likely would get 60 votes to attached to healthcare reform bill. But doing so would complicate the White House's dealing with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), which opposes reimportation. The White House and PhRMA stuck an accord to limit the drug industry's contribution to healthcare reform to $80 billion over 10 years, which apparently would be broken by enacting reimportation.

Shortly after Reid, Baucus and Dodd left the floor to discuss the donut hole, Reid returned and made an agreement with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to finally vote on the Dorgan measure and three others, including an alternative drug reimportation amendment from Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who opposes Dorgan's language.