Prescription drug politics

Robert Novak
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Posted: May 31, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Each of the two leading Republicans in Congress -- House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist -- is prepared to take personal control of the looming battle over Medicare and prescription drug benefits.

Both Hastert and Frist have misgivings about President Bush's plans. As the only physician in the Senate, Frist is more familiar with the Medicare problem than with any other policy area. Before becoming speaker, Hastert led the Republican task force on health care.

However, the two leaders will not find the field all to themselves. In the House, two committee chairmen -- Bill Thomas (Ways and Means) and Billy Tauzin (Commerce) -- are battling each other for jurisdiction over prescription drugs. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley also has strong views, particularly about Medicare in rural areas.

DANGER FOR DEMOCRATS

The three most moderate Democrats running for president are avoiding the left-wing Take Back America rally in Washington Wednesday through Friday. Sens. Joseph Lieberman, John Edwards and Bob Graham are not scheduled to appear.

The party's other six presidential hopefuls will speak. They will join an all-star cast of leftist speakers including Robert Borosage, Donna Brazile, Robert Reich, Bill Moyers, Ralph Neas, Michael Moore, Eric Alterman, Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, among many others.

Presidential supporters of Sen. John Kerry, scheduled to speak Thursday afternoon, worry about his association with these activists. Old-timers remember Sen. George McGovern's experience attending a conference of the left-wing National Welfare Rights Organization at which he endorsed a cash payment to all Americans. That idea helped sink his 1972 presidential candidacy in the general election.

CALIFORNIA RECALL

Political insiders in California now see a 30 to 40 percent chance of validating enough petition signatures to put the recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis on the state ballot this autumn. If that happens, chances are good that Davis will be removed from office.

More likely, however, the Davis recall will not go before voters until the March 2004 primary election. The governor's chances for survival would be better then, with Democratic voters out in greater numbers because of California's presidential primary.

A footnote: Second-term Rep. Darrell Issa, a self-made multi-millionaire, is one sure Republican candidate to replace Davis if the recall appears on the ballot. Issa is being advised by veteran political operative Ken Khachigian, who was a speechwriter for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

GAS TAX POLITICS

Opponents of raising the gasoline tax are pointing out that its principal supporter, House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, voted in 1982 against a 5-cent increase later signed by President Reagan.

"If it was right for Reagan, it's right for us," says a full-page pro-tax advertisement by the Transportation Construction Coalition placed in The Washington Times and aimed at conservatives. In addition to Young, prominent conservatives who voted against the gas tax when it was passed by the House 21 years ago included Dick Cheney, Jack Kemp and Phil Gramm.

Two other interesting 1982 House votes against the tax increase were cast by Democrats Tom Daschle and Al Gore.

DIALING FOR DOLLARS

Republican lobbyists in Washington, eager to be designated as Rangers, are elbowing one another to be first in getting to potential contributors to President Bush's re-election campaign.

As in the 2000 campaign, somebody who brings in $100,000 is a Pioneer. The new, higher classification of Ranger requires fund-raisers to collect at least $200,000. While the 2000 Pioneers could collect unlimited "soft money" contributions, the 2004 Pioneers and Rangers are limited by the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act to "hard money": $2,000 from each individual and $5,000 from a political action committee.

The first test for lobbyists on the road to being a Ranger is a June 17 $2,000-a-ticket fund-raising dinner in Washington to be addressed by the president. A co-chairman of the event must raise $20,000, which counts toward the Pioneer and Ranger quotas.