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Public Statements

Senate Minority Leader Daschle and Sens. Stabenow, Boxer Hold News Conference

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Date:
Location: Unknown

DASCHLE:

    Good morning. Thank you for joining us this morning.

    We want to talk about prescription drugs and some of the amendments that we're going to have. We have said from the beginning that, while many of us recognize that this bill is a start, there are numerous improvements that could be made in the legislation, and we're going to start doing that today.

    Our first two amendments will be an amendment offered by Senator Stabenow that we talked about yesterday, which would guarantee that seniors would have a Medicare option as they make their choices on prescription drugs.

    And then Senator Boxer will try to eliminate this benefit shutdown that occurs under the plan that is before us now. Used to be called the donut hole, and nobody understands donut holes. But they understand when benefits shut down it means something very different to them than donut holes.

    But that's, in essence, that is exactly what we're talking about. At some point in the year -- it's really a sickness penalty, and at some point during the year, the sicker you get, the sooner this shutdown occurs. And so Senator Boxer will talk about that as well.

DASCHLE:

    So we expect a very vigorous debate over the course of the next two weeks. These two amendments are key.

    We will have a number of others. I will have one that addresses this wild fluctuation in premium costs that could occur as a result of the lack of constraints or certainty within the bill. We will have re-importation, the opportunity to debate again the generic drug issue so that we can bring costs down for everybody, not just for seniors. Those will be key amendments for us as well. We will offer a substitute or more, perhaps more than one substitute.

    But at the end of the day I'm hopeful that we can have had a very good debate and lay out a record as to the improvements that we think are so critical. Ultimately, whether they pass today or pass later, we'll keep coming back, offering these proposals for improvements, and I think it's very important.

    As some of you may know, we had one of our frequent breakfasts with the president this morning, the four -- I guess five leaders now. Congressman DeLay is part of these breakfasts now. But we had -- Congresswoman Pelosi and I urged the president to weigh in as he did about a week ago on the child care tax credit acceleration.

    We think it's very important for us to resolve this matter quickly. Senator Lincoln and many others -- Senator Snowe, Senator Breaux, Senator Baucus -- have all expressed a desire to get this done, perhaps as early as this week.

    So we asked the president if he would simply weigh in, make sure that we continue to support the Senate version, which is paid for, which is limited in scope, which doesn't exacerbate the debt, and which provides meaningful relief to about 8 million children whose families have incomes less than $26,000.

    So it's critical that we get this job done, and I'm hopeful that we can do it this week. The president seemed to be responsive, and I'm hopeful that with his additional effort here we can get the job done before we leave for the July 4 recess.

    Let me ask my two colleagues now for their comments on these specific amendments, then we'll take your questions.

STABENOW:

    Well, thank you, Senator Daschle.

    The first amendment we have that will be taken up later this morning, as Senator Daschle said, is the amendment to give seniors real choices under Medicare. Eighty-nine percent of the seniors have chosen to stay in traditional Medicare when they were given a choice between Medicare HMOs and traditional Medicare.

STABENOW:

    So 89 percent of the seniors of the country have already chosen Medicare, and yet that option is not available to them in this bill without going through a convoluted process of private insurance options and so on.

    My amendment will simply say, within the budget that they've established of $400 billion, within their benefit structure, we believe seniors should receive a real choice of traditional Medicare.

    Now, I find it very interesting, Tom Scully was quoted in the New York Times as saying that private drug-only plans don't exist in nature. So what we're doing is gambling right now on a system that doesn't even exist.

    And we believe seniors deserve better than that, that if we guarantee them the option of traditional Medicare they will know that they will have help paying for their medicine. They can have other choices if they choose, if they become available in nature. They can then have those choices.

    The one other point that I would make is that this is an amazing debate when you think about it. When we look at the issue of cost, we know that Medicare administrative costs are about 3 percent. We know that if you go to private insurance you're looking at 12, 15, 20 percent, sometimes 25 percent to administer private insurance. We know that in the private sector insurance rates are skyrocketing, going up 15, 20 percent a year. Medicaid is going up about 5 percent a year.

    I mean, when you look at this picture from an economic standpoint, from a cost standpoint, as well as a quality and choice standpoint, it makes not sense, and we will argue that the plan that saves money, that provides true choice, should be available to every senior, and that's Medicare.

BOXER:

    I just want to strongly support both my colleagues here. And I want to say Senator Stabenow has done an extraordinary job on this. And I think that her amendment is really one of the most important perhaps of the whole Congress, because people in my state -- and I have 4 million people -- 4 million people. That would be, if you took all of Delaware, five Delawares. Four million people on Medicare, most of them low income. They like Medicare. They want to have the choice.

    So, Debbie, I thank you for what you have done.

    We forced the Republicans here to make Medicare a fallback -- only if you don't have two plans competing in your region. It is confusing, it's complicated. Our people have chosen Medicare, as Debbie has said. Let's give them the choice.

    Now, I'm going to be addressing a very simple part of this issue, which is the benefit shutdown problem.

BOXER:

    What happens in this bill is, when you reach a certain point, the benefit simply shuts down. That's when your drugs add up to $4,500, your benefits stop.

    Now, do you premiums stop? No. And by the way, the premiums aren't even capped. So we hope they'll be $35. When Tom introduced his bill the last time, they were $25. Now they're $35. They could be $50. Who knows? There's no cap on them.

    So you're still paying your premiums. You've already paid half for your drugs up to this point, half, plus a $275 deductible. And now, guess what? Your benefit shuts down.

    So what I'm going to do is restore that piece. And in essence what it is, if you're sick and you need more than $5,800 of drugs -- and by the way, some people use it was prevention. If you look at what cholesterol drugs cost, prostate drugs cost, you can go down the list. It doesn't take that much to get up to this level. It's a $1,300 penalty, plus your premiums you pay during that portion.

    So this amendment that I am going to offer will close down that problem and make sure that there is no benefit shutdown and benefits will continue to be 50 percent. We could argue if that's enough, but at least at the level of 50 percent through the entire year.

QUESTION:

    Senator Boxer, how do you pay for this?

BOXER:

    I will be sunsetting the bill, because my view is -- to pay for it -- because I believe this whole thing is an experiment. We've never had a prescription drug program before. We're going to have to analyze this.

    Look, just look at the administrative costs. Last night the House was marking up. I said to my colleagues, "Shows you what an exciting life I lead, at 11:00 I was watching the markup from my home." And they put in 25 percent as an overhead. That's 25 of the entire bill in the House is going for overhead.

    What?

    (CROSSTALK)

BOXER:

    Oh, my gosh. $100 billion.

    So when we see the overhead costs in Medicare at 3 percent and an overhead of 25 percent, you got to look at this, because -- and by the way, Maria Cantwell is offering an amendment to make all that transparent. These HMOs are not going to get away with it if Maria's -- if Maria's amendment passes for transparency.

    And then you're going to want to review this. So we will be, as soon as we see what the scoring is, we'll know how much we have to sunset.

QUESTION:

    (OFF-MIKE)

BOXER:

    Do not know at this time.

QUESTION:

    (OFF-MIKE)

STABENOW:

    The score should be essentially zero in the sense that we are using the $400 billion in the existing bill and also providing the authority for the secretary of HHS to develop a Medicare plan within those numbers.

    So this should not have any cost whatsoever. I would argue it actually saves money because of the way Medicare operates.

QUESTION:

    (OFF-MIKE)

STABENOW:

    CBO has not said that yet. I mean...

QUESTION:

    So neither of you have gotten a score yet back from CBO?

STABENOW:

    Well, we are working on the score. In fact, the entire bill didn't have a score until just this morning and it may not -- does it have a score now?

DASCHLE:

    We were told -- I haven't seen the score.

STABENOW:

    So we don't have a score for the entire bill yet. But the amendment simply says we're not trying to add in this amendment one dollar to the overall package, we are saying that within the confines that they have constructed that there will be a Medicare option.

BOXER:

    And I won't be adding a dollar either.

QUESTION:

    (OFF-MIKE)

STABENOW:

    It will not. So these are separate amendments. I am fully supportive of Senator Boxer's amendment. But my amendment is to clarify that...

QUESTION:

    Well, how can you -- if it doesn't add money, how can you provide coverage for this gap?

BOXER:

    Mine does.

STABENOW:

    Well, there are two separate amendments...

QUESTION:

    (OFF-MIKE)

STABENOW:

    Yes. Under mine we're simply saying we keep the gap. We keep every number that they have. We simply say, 89 percent of the seniors in this country, when given the opportunity, chose Medicare, and under this plan they would not be allowed that choice.

QUESTION:

    Senator Daschle, one of the things that the House (OFF-MIKE) means test, wealthy seniors, $60,000 in income or more a year, pay more for drugs in the House plan. What do you think of that?

DASCHLE:

    Well, you've already heard Senator Boxer address this concern for administration and the high overhead. I can't think of anything that would add more to the overhead than putting means testing into this mix besides.

    We want to try to keep it as simple as possible. That's very difficult with the structure they've now employed. So we wouldn't support a means test at this time.

QUESTION:

    What about the principle of having less benefit (OFF- MIKE) for people who can afford to pay for their own drugs? I mean, figure a way to do it without...

DASCHLE:

    Well, that's the problem. I think you lose whatever savings you generate in administrative cost.

DASCHLE:

    I mean, analysts have looked at it and they have found that it is so complicated.

    And then the other thing is, do you just cut it off flat at $60,000 or $80,000 or do you graduate it? If you cut it off flat, there are going to be a lot of efforts to try to get below that ceiling if you're at $61,000. And what will happen there?

    So all of those concerns have led us to believe that, at least with the plans that we've noted, you can't do it without experiencing very high administrative cost. And if we're already spending $100 billion out of the $400 billion on administrative cost, do we want to add another $25 or $30 billion besides?

QUESTION:

    Senator Boxer, are any of these amendments deal breakers as far as you're concerned? In other words, if these don't pass, if you don't have support, in the end of the day will you and other Democrats, do you think, end up voting for the bill anyway?

BOXER:

    I can only speak for myself. At this point I believe it is very important to get a prescription drug benefit on the books. And let me tell you, this one is no great shakes. I mean, when you really see it, you realize -- and I've gone over it, over and over it -- many seniors will wind up saving 25 percent to about 30 percent, and it frankly may be well worth their while to go to Canada to get the drugs, they'll save more.

    So I think the important thing is to get a benefit in place. Now, that means I'm leaning in favor of voting for a final bill, but I am not firmly decided, because I don't know what bad amendments could come along and make this even weaker and worse.

    So at this point I would say, you know, I want to see a prescription drug benefit in place. We Democrats have been fighting for this for I don't know how long, and we won a major battle when the president decided not to pursue pushing people out of Medicare into HMOs for their health care. That was a huge battle.

    So, you know, we're glad we're discussing a prescription drug benefit, and that's kind of where my thinking is at this point.

    (CORRECTED COPY)

QUESTION:

    Senator Daschle, could we go back to this breakfast. You're sitting there with Ms. Pelosi and Mr. DeLay (OFF-MIKE) and you said to the president, "We'd like you to weigh in (OFF-MIKE)." And you thought he was responsive (OFF-MIKE)? How did he respond. I mean, did he say, "Tom..."

    (LAUGHTER)

    (CROSSTALK)

DASCHLE:

    No, he did look at me. But, in addition to that, he urged that the Republican leadership work with each other to get to conference and to resolve this matter; hopefully, this week.

QUESTION:

    And was there any exchange between (OFF-MIKE) and Mr. DeLay about this?

DASCHLE:

    Not that I can recall, no.

QUESTION:

    And did the Republican leadership say they would?

DASCHLE:

    Well, Senator Frist indicated that we may go to conference as early as today. So that was movement.

QUESTION:

    But he didn't say anything to DeLay or Hastert about he's tired of the House holding it up?

DASCHLE:

    No, he didn't.

QUESTION:

    Senator, a lot of Democrats have been sending letters to the White House lately about Supreme Court nominations. Did that subject come up with the president...

DASCHLE:

    It didn't, no.

QUESTION:

    The House today will take up legislation that would make the repeal of the estate tax permanent. They've got the votes to do it there. Do you think Republicans have the vote to pass that legislation here in the Senate?

DASCHLE:

    We haven't done a recent head count, so I really don't know whether the votes are there or not. I don't think they are.

    There are votes to increase the exemption significantly. I think, if I recall the last time we offered an amendment, it was to exempt small businesses and farms entirely and then to increase the ceiling or the cap to I think it was $8 million. And we got a very significant vote. If I recall, it wasn't enough to overcome the point of order, I think, that was made, but it was in the high fifties.

    I don't think they have the votes to repeal, but we're only talking about 1.5 percent of the people who pay estate taxes today who would be affected by repeal. And those people whose incomes lie above $8 to $10 million are not ones we ought to be concerned about when we have a $500 billion deficit this year.

QUESTION:

    Senator Daschle, you've been very supportive of an Alaska natural gas pipeline, but I've heard that the financial incentives for that line are now possibly in trouble in the Senate. What is your understanding of that? Do you think that the incentives to get that line built are still feasible to be passed?

DASCHLE:

    I think it's essential we get these incentives. I think it's important that the administration weigh in on that as well. I think it's absolutely imperative that with the natural gas problems we have with regard to supply that we build this pipeline as quickly as we can. The incentives would help us accelerate construction, and I think it's essential that they get done soon.

QUESTION:

    What do you think the chances are that it'll actually be approved, though?

DASCHLE:

    Well, I'm always reluctant to put any prediction out with regard to our chances.

DASCHLE:

    I would say that there are still bipartisan support and that bipartisan support leads me to be cautiously optimistic we can get the job done.

QUESTION:

    Did the president say anything (OFF-MIKE) about this debate on prescription drugs?

DASCHLE:

    We talked about it. He thanked the Senate especially for its bipartisan approach to the effort; noted that the House passed it out of committee last night. And we talked about what the prospects were of getting it done before the end of this month.

QUESTION:

    So did he say anything with greater clarity to say that he would sign the bill...

DASCHLE:

    He didn't talk about signing the bill. He talked about what he felt to be the urgency of getting the bill through conference so that he could see what the final product would look like. But he urged us to act quickly.

QUESTION:

    Did the leaders around the table suggest that it could get done by the end of the month?

DASCHLE:

    Well, I think everyone was reasonably confident that we could get it to conference by the end of the month. I don't think we could probably finish it by the end of the month.

QUESTION:

    (OFF-MIKE)

DASCHLE:

    There was no discussion about that, no.

QUESTION:

    (OFF-MIKE)

DASCHLE:

    Well, I think it is; it's tantamount to a voucher system and the voucher system has not worked in the past. We're not supportive of getting away from the basic Medicare construct that's so critical. I think seniors would be, again, confused and very anxious about what it would mean for them. And it's just another back door to privatization.

STABENOW:

    Tom, would you mind -- I feel compelled back to the question on estate tax and prescription drugs to say one thing -- if I might add to Senator Daschle has said.

    When we have continual debates now on cutting taxes -- and I happen to support eliminating the state tax for family-owned businesses and farms -- but I would urge all of you to put this in context. When we at a time on the floor -- I just left the floor -- where one of our Republican colleagues was indicating we could not afford to do more than $400 billion to help seniors and the disabled of this country pay for their medicine.

STABENOW:

    And then we have the House taking up the estate tax. We will have other tax cuts coming for us. We have had two rounds of tax cuts in the past. This is a question of values and priorities -- values and priorities. It's not about whether or not we can afford prescription drug coverage. It's about whether we think it's important enough to offer 40 million people in this country money in their pocket to pay for their life-saving medicine versus a few folks getting another tax cut.

QUESTION:

    Do you have the votes to pass your amendments?

DASCHLE:

    We don't know. We are hopeful that some of our Republican colleagues will support some of these amendments. I can't imagine, as much broad-based support as there has been in the past for a Medicare option, that there wouldn't be Medicare supporters on the Republican side who would be supportive of the Stabenow amendment.

    I also think I don't know how you vote against something like this? I mean, how do you vote against -- how do you vote in favor of a benefit shutdown? I mean, that's in essence what we're simply saying, "Let's eliminate the benefit shutdown."

QUESTION:

    (OFF-MIKE) Ms. Stabenow's point, you talked about juxtaposing tax cuts versus prescription drugs. One of the main Democratic points against tax cuts is you don't need to be giving tax relief to people who are making more than $8 million, more than a million depending on what the specific provision was. And yet in the same conference you said, "Well, we can't afford, because of the overhead costs, to not give a prescription drug benefit to people earning $8 million, a million dollars, whatever the money is."

    Do you not see a conflict in those positions?

STABENOW:

    I personally do not. First of all, an overwhelming majority of seniors are earning under $30,000, $40,000 a year.

    And we're talking about a universal system. The only part of health care we have in this country that is available to everyone regardless of where you live, regardless of your circumstances, is Medicare. And for the huge administrative cost that Senator Daschle spoke of, I don't believe it's wise to get away from that principle.

    That is very different from putting literally millions and millions of dollars into the pockets of a few, while seniors are trying to figure out how to make their daily expenses and get their medicine.

QUESTION:

    (OFF-MIKE) on the Supreme Court, Gonzales has sent a letter back to Senator Schumer, cc:ed you, saying he's happy to meet the senators at any time. But this morning Ari Fleischer said, "While the president or Gonzales is happy to talk about this, the Constitution is clear: It's the president that appoints judges."

DASCHLE:

    Well, we don't question his ability to appoint. What we simply wanted to do is to suggest that the more we can consult, the more we can meet, the more we can talk about avoiding a major confrontation, the better off the country and the system will be. That's in essence what we're suggesting. Let's see if we can find some bipartisan consultation. Let's reach across the table and do as much as possible to avoid the confrontation, rather than anticipate it because there has been none.

DASCHLE:

    And that's what we're proposing. We'll meet with anybody. We'll meet with Mr. Gonzales. Obviously meeting with the president would be even better.

BOXER:

    Mr. Leader, can I just say something? Did Ari Fleischer really say, "The president appoints?" He didn't say "nominates."

DASCHLE:

    (OFF-MIKE)

BOXER:

    OK, well, let me just say, it's really, if you read the Constitution, a 50-50 deal here on judges. And if you go back to history -- and Senator Schumer is such an expert and he reminded us all that when the country was founded, initially in the initial drafts of the Constitution, the Senate was suppose to appoint judges. And then, they said, "Well, it ought to be shared equally." So it's a 50- 50 situation.

    The president, in this process, is not more important than the Senate and the Senate's not more important. They have to work together -- advice and consent.

    And you know I find it amazing. I hope that the president will meet with our leaders on both sides, because it is something the American people want to see happen, it's not -- you know -- the president is more important than the Senate; no, it's 50-50 on this one.

DASCHLE:

    Thanks, everybody.

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