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Medicare bill set for vote Tuesday

Last-minute Democratic efforts to block $400 billion plan fail

Senate Democrats including Edward Kennedy, left, and Tom Daschle, right, speak to reporters about their opposition to the Medicare bill.
Senate Democrats including Edward Kennedy, left, and Tom Daschle, right, speak to reporters about their opposition to the Medicare bill.

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CNN's Jonathan Karl reports on the Senate's impending vote on overhauling Medicare.
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CNN's Louise Schiavone reports on the criticism leveled at AARP for supporting the Medicare bill.
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CNN's John King reports that critics say the $400 billion Medicare plan is fiscally irresponsible and would prove a costly victory for President Bush.
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CNN's Bill Hemmer speaks with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson on the Medicare bill.
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Bill Frist

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate will vote Tuesday on a contentious $400 billion plan to overhaul Medicare, after opponents of the bill spent most of Monday afternoon and evening voicing their displeasure with the measure.

The vote is expected around 9:15 a.m.

Two last-minute efforts by Democratic senators to block passage of the bill failed.

A threatened filibuster was ruled out when the Senate voted 70-29 in favor of ending debate on the issue. Sixty votes were needed to avoid a filibuster.

The next effort nearly succeeded. Democrats opposed to the bill raised a budget point of order, saying the bill would require more spending next year than Congress had approved.

The Senate voted 61-39 to waive the budget act, allowing the bill to proceed to a vote. Again, 60 votes were needed.

The bill, a centerpiece of President Bush's domestic agenda, would be the largest expansion of Medicare since the program was created in 1965.

It would add a prescription drug benefit, provide billions of dollars in subsidies to insurance companies and HMOs, and take the first step in allowing private plans to compete with Medicare. (Interactive: Prescription for change)

Supporters say the bill would help lead to better private coverage for seniors. But opponents say it would waste taxpayer funds and effectively force seniors into inadequate and expensive health plans. (CNN Access: Frist and Harkin)

The bill has made for surprising bedfellows. Some prominent Democrats support it. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said she will vote for it "not because it's perfect, but because I believe it will bring needed help to my state."

Meanwhile, some conservative Republicans oppose it, arguing it is far too expensive, particularly in light of the current economy, and will not yield results to justify the cost. Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire called the bill "a massive tax increase being placed on working young Americans and Americans who haven't yet been born, in order to support a drug benefit for retired Americans and Americans who are about to retire."

The White House said President Bush will jump in if necessary and call lawmakers, urging them to support the bill. Bush called House members last week, a move credited with helping get the bill passed in the House on Saturday by a slim margin, 220-215.

Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts has helped lead the fight against the bill in the Senate and repeatedly threatened to try to launch a filibuster.

"It's the first step towards a total dismantling of Medicare," he said of the bill Monday. "In exchange for destroying Medicare, it offers senior citizens a paltry and inadequate drug benefit. And the moment it is implemented, it will make 9 million senior citizens ... almost a quarter of all senior citizens, worse off than they are today."

But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said, "If we're successful today ... 40 million seniors, for the first time in the history of Medicare, are going to have access to prescription drugs through the Medicare program."

Sens. John Edwards, John Kerry and Joe Lieberman -- all Democrats seeking the Democratic presidential nomination -- canceled campaign events to come fight the bill. (The Morning Grind)

Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, argued that the plan will not help the elderly but will enrich drug companies.

"There's so much money in here to buy off HMOs, to get to the pharmaceutical companies," he said. "And you wonder what happened to the poor senior out there that we were supposed to try to help."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist says the current Medicare system is
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist says the current Medicare system is "antiquated" and needs to be updated.

There's a good deal of confusion about what the bill would and would not do, he complained.

"It's about 1,100 or 1,200 pages," Harkin said, "And we got it dated November the 20th. No one's read this bill. Nobody knows what's in it."

The drug benefits, he said, "don't go into effect until 2006. So what's the rush? The only rush is the pharmaceutical companies and the HMOs, they want their money. Big bucks -- billions of dollars of taxpayer money going to bribe them to come in and to provide drugs and benefits to seniors."

The White House says that though the full drug benefit would go into effect in 2006, within six months of the bill's passage seniors would be eligible for a drug-discount card offering up to 25 percent off the retail price of prescription drugs.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told CNN the bill will "give our seniors all across America prescription drug coverage, preventive health measures, a physical, as well as many other things that are going to benefit them."

He added, "This is a giant step forward to transforming Medicare into a modern way to treat maladies and help our seniors get prescription drugs and to prevent and manage illnesses."

Frist, in an interview on CNN, was asked why much of the money goes to employers, HMOs and drug companies -- rather than pouring more funds into existing prescription drug benefits. He said the current Medicare system is "antiquated" and needs to be updated.

"The whole point of modernizing the system is to make it more efficient, so that ... every taxpayer dollar invested ... has greater value," he said.

CNN correspondents Jonathan Karl and Suzanne Malveaux, and producer Ted Barrett, contributed to this report.

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