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Washington in brief

Democrats force way into Medicare negotiations

By wire services
Published October 31, 2003

WASHINGTON - A delegation of House Democrats walked unbidden Thursday into closed-door talks over a Medicare prescription drug bill, an act of political theater scripted to dramatize opposition to legislation taking shape in negotiations dominated by Republicans.

Despite the intrusion, a core group of negotiators reported progress toward agreement on a bill that would remake the government's 38-year-old program of health care for 40-million Americans age 65 and older and the disabled. "I think we're very close" to a compromise, said Speaker Dennis Hastert.

"There are a couple of things that we haven't put to bed yet," the Illinois Republican said, although he added, "I don't know how long its going to take."

Chief among the issues is a Republican demand for traditional Medicare to compete directly with private plans that would be set up under the legislation.

Also unresolved is a dispute over whether to permit importation of lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada and other countries.

New York Rep. Charles Rangel led a dozen or so Democrats into the Capitol office belonging to California Rep. Bill Thomas, site of the House-Senate negotiations dominated by Republicans.

Congress passes bills to keep government running

WASHINGTON - The House narrowly approved an Interior Department spending bill Thursday that devotes nearly $3-billion to firefighting efforts as Congress struggled to make inroads into a backlog of unfinished spending bills.

Already a month into the new budget year, both the House and the Senate voted earlier in the day to keep federal agencies operating for another week while they work on spending bills covering everything from highways to farm subsidies.

The $20.2-billion Interior bill passed 216-205 despite protests from both Republicans and Democrats about language inserted at the last minute that bars the Interior Department for a year from starting a court-ordered accounting of how much the government owes American Indian landowners suing the government for what they say is more than a century of misuse of their lands.

Earlier, the House voted 406-13 and the Senate passed by voice legislation to keep many federal programs running at fiscal year 2003 spending levels through Nov. 7. The current spending extension was to have expired on Friday.

Congress is required to pass 13 spending bills every year to fund federal programs.

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