Jeffords Party Switch May Influence Health Legislation
As expected, Sen. James Jeffords (Vt.) announced this morning that he will leave the Republican party and serve as an Independent, giving Democrats control of the Senate for the first time since 1994, the Washington Post reports. Jeffords said he will vote with Democrats "on organizational matters," which will make Sen. Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) majority leader and give Democrats a one-vote majority in the chamber. With the Senate now divided among 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and one Independent, the Democrats will assume the chairmanships of all committees and set the schedule for votes and hearings. Jeffords said the switch will take effect once the House and Senate "resolve their differences" about President Bush's tax cut bill, which is currently in a conference committee (Babington, Washington Post, 5/24). "I have changed my party label, but I have not changed my beliefs," Jeffords said (Graff, Burlington Free Press, 5/24). Jeffords, whose views have often put him "at odds" with Republican leaders, has long been a supporter of abortion rights and supported former President Clinton's failed universal health care plan (Grier/Chaddock, Christian Science Monitor, 5/24). Health care analyst Robert Laszewski said that Jeffords' decision represents a "train wreck for President Bush and the Republican agenda." With the Senate in Democratic hands, Bush probably will have to "abandon the unilateral governing style that has marked his first months in office," the Post reports.
The Post reports that "Democrats' imprint [on the Senate] may be evident nowhere more vividly than on several sensitive health care issues, important to both parties, that have been entangled in partisan disputes for years." For instance, Jeffords, chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, will likely be replaced by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), a "longtime leader on health issues" and one of the Senate's "most liberal members." As committee chair, Kennedy "could probably vote" his patients' rights bill (S 283) -- co-sponsored with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.) -- out of committee and bring it to the full Senate for a vote, Health Insurance Association of America president Chip Kahn said. In addition, with Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), one of the Senate's "most outspoken" patients' rights critics, no longer serving as majority whip, "Senate action on patients' rights will accelerate," the Post reports (Goldstein/Milbank, Washington Post, 5/24). Although Bush has said he would likely veto legislation that includes an expanded right for patients to sue HMOs, "just elevating the discussion could disrupt Republicans," Ira Loss, executive vice president of HSBC Washington Analysis, said (Walsh, Boston Herald, 5/24). Democrats say they are likely to bring the Kennedy-McCain-Edwards bill to the floor "shortly after the Memorial Day recess," the Wall Street Journal reports.
The Journal reports that Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who likely will become chair of the Finance Committee, may be "eager" to advocate an "ambitious Medicare prescription drug benefit." The benefit Democrats support is "hefty" and includes "only dollops of the market-based reform that many liberals abhor" but which Republicans have favored, the Journal reports. Robert Reischauer, president of the Urban Institute and former director of the Congressional Budget Office, said that Jeffords' decision "derails the [Bush] administration's intention of pushing a Medicare restructuring forward." However, despite their majority, Democrats will "still face significant political limits," particularly because it is unclear whether the party's "health priorities could attract the 60 votes needed to defeat a possible GOP filibuster," the Journal reports. AARP chief lobbyist John Rother said, "The fundamental fact is that ... (the Jeffords defection) doesn't change the votes" (Cummings/Rogers, Wall Street Journal, 5/24).
As news of Jeffords' party switch hit Wall Street, analysts predicted that the defection "could markedly affect the drug, HMO ... and tobacco industries." A Democratic Senate could be a "public relations nightmare for the pharmaceutical industry," the Los Angeles Times reports. Tom Miller, a Cato Institute policy analyst, said that with control of the Senate, Democrats "can apply more heat to the pharmaceutical industry and inflame issues." Andy Laperriere, a political economist for the International Strategy and Investment Group, added that the Democratic majority might raise the "potential threat of price controls in some form." In addition, HMO stocks "were hard hit" yesterday, possibly because "investors envisioned industry critic Kennedy shaping" a patients' rights bill, the Times reports (Friedman, Los Angeles Times, 5/24). A transcript of Jeffords press conference today is available at the Burlington Free Press web site.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.