Senate Leaders Not Courting Votes For Drug Re-Importation Amendment

Senate leadership has pledged to allow a vote on re-importing prescription drugs from Canada as an amendment to the health care reform bill, but they're not working to make sure it passes, the number-two Senate Democrat said Wednesday night.

On top of the billions it would save consumers, the re-importation measure introduced by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) would save the federal government $19 billion over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Dorgan's amendment would also bust the deal the White House cut with Big Pharma, which has vowed to kill the re-importation provision in "hand to hand combat."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has himself voted to allow drug re-importation in the past, but with health care negotiations still tenuous, he's avoiding this particular fistfight. Reid's number two, Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), told reporters on his way out of a Wednesday-night meeting with Senate Democrats that leadership is not whipping Democrats to make sure that the re-importation measure will pass.

"No. Well, we asked, but we're not -- there was a question asked of the Members through staff as to how they were inclined, but it isn't like we're buttonholing people who are voting yes or no and saying, 'Vote the other way,'" Durbin said.

Over the weekend, Dorgan said Reid promised him a vote Monday. It was supposed to happen Wednesday and didn't. But Durbin said that was an issue of procedure, not about putting off a vote on the Dorgan Amendment.

"I don't think it is. I don't think it is," Durbin said. "We've got to work it out with the Republicans. We can't get a vote unless they get a vote, and so on."

When it does come time to vote on re-importation, however, the White House-PhRMA deal may be a bigger obstacle than Republicans. Dorgan's amendment is also championed by health care linchpin Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who pledged last weekend to work to garner other GOP votes. Republican Sens. Charles Grassley (Iowa), John McCain (Ariz.) and David Vitter (La.) are cosponsoring a bill that would do the same thing.

Dorgan, for his part, said Saturday that the White House had not discouraged his push for drug re-importation, which President Obama supported as a senator and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel advocated while in the House.