The Senate ties itself in knots over cheaper drugs from Canada
For his part, Frist, the Senate's only physician, says safety is his chief concern. "Senator Frist feels very strongly that until you can do this safely, it is not something you can bring to the floor," says Frist spokeswoman Amy Call. In response to the charge that Frist is carrying water for the White House and the drug lobby, Call says, "I think that really underestimates Senator Frist and his abilities."
Backers of importation say a carefully crafted bill could guarantee the safety of the drugs. What's really going on, they say, is big-money politics. "I'm afraid it might be that simple," says Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. "The big drug companies have convinced some of our Republican friends that they don't want this bill to come up, and so the Republican leadership won't let it come up."
Even some Republicans, like Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, joined in the criticism of Frist. "It is my presumption that he is doing everything he can to keep the bill from being [brought] up for a vote," says Grassley, who has a reimportation proposal of his own. "If it was up, it would pass 75 to 25."
Big money. Over the past five years, pharmaceutical and other healthcare companies have contributed more than $67.5 million to political campaigns, about 60 percent to Republican candidates and causes. Frist has been one beneficiary. Since 1999, pharmaceutical or health product companies' employees or political action committees are No. 4 on his list of industry supporters, having ponied up at least $123,000, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
"The question you always have to ask in politics is 'Who do you stand with?' " says Senator Dorgan of North Dakota. "The White House and the Senate leadership answer it this way: We are on the pharmaceutical industry's side. We are not on the side of the American consumer."
Supporters of the bill are now searching for ways to get the measure passed in the Senate before Congress breaks for the year, but they are facing long odds and a tight schedule. Democrats also concede that this election battle is not being fought on terrain they would choose. "The war in Iraq is so overwhelming that nothing else is getting through," says former Democratic Rep. Barbara Kennelly, who now heads the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. "If it wasn't for the war, this would be the issue." But with more and more Americans wanting cheaper drugs from Canada, this issue looks to have some staying power.