WASHINGTON -- Beating back what they said was a Republican ploy to sink their patients' bill of rights initiative, Senate Democrats pledged to keep the legislation alive and denounced a presidential veto threat.
The new Democratic majority defeated an amendment on Thursday that would have made the cost of health insurance fully tax-deductible for the self-employed beginning Jan. 1. Current law provides for full deductibility on Jan. 1, 2003.
The Democrats dismissed the amendment, sponsored by Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark, as a tactical ploy to kill the bill. The amendment countered a constitutional requirement for tax measures to originate in the House, and could also trigger a provision under Congress' budget rules requiring 60 votes for passage, Democrats said.
The 52-45 majority was helped in the narrowly divided Senate by two Republicans -- Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lincoln Chafee, R.I. "Let's really get serious about negotiations," McCain said afterward.
The Democrats pledged to fight more attempts at tax legislation on Friday, when debate resumes on the patients' bill of rights. A July Fourth break next week could be canceled to get the work done, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle says.
"This debate is about making sure patients get the protections they deserve," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. "It's about whether we are going to stop HMOs from making medical decisions."
Democrats want to guarantee patients can get emergency room visits, specialty doctors and clinical trials without time-consuming plan approvals.
Republican opponents charge the bill encourages injured patients to sue, rather than work out disputes through a professional appeals system.
President Bush on Thursday issued a formal veto threat, saying the bill of rights would encourage costly lawsuits and drive up the cost of health insurance.
"The president believes that patients should be given care first -- litigation should be the last resort," according to the written statement read to the senators during their debate.
Kennedy said that stood Bush in opposition to groups of patients, doctors and nurses who support the bill. "The president should stand with them and not with HMOs and insurance companies," he said.
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