WASHINGTON – Legislation to give doctors a yearlong reprieve from a looming 24 percent cut in their payments from Medicare overcame turbulence in the House on Thursday and appears on track to clear the Senate next week, possibly just hours before a Monday midnight deadline.
The bill passed the House Thursday on a surprise voice vote after an hourlong delay signaled GOP leaders were having difficulty mustering the two-thirds vote to pass the bill under fast-track procedures. Prominent Democrats withheld support, as did a host of rank and file Republicans, which led top leaders in both parties to call off a roll call vote and ease the measure through with a wink and a nod.
The vote was engineered by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., with cooperation from top Democrats, particularly Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
It came after several leading Democrats weighed in against the bill, which would “patch” the Medicare fee system for 12 months. They complained that the temporary measure would set back efforts to find a permanent fix for the program’s flawed Medicare payment formula, which has bedeviled lawmakers for more than a decade. There is widespread support for legislation to permanently solve the problem but no agreement on how to pay for it.
The measure represents the 17th time Congress has stepped in with a temporary fix to a poorly designed Medicare fee formula that dates to a 1997 budget law. The House vote came after efforts to permanently fix the formula appeared to have fizzled. Democrats such as Reps. Frank Pallone of New Jersey and Henry Waxman of California said they would oppose the measure because it would hurt the effort to find a permanent solution to the problem
Pelosi, however, swung behind the legislation, which also had strong support from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, President Barack Obama’s most powerful ally on Capitol Hill.
The heavily lobbied legislation also contains numerous other health care provisions of interest to doctors, hospitals, drug companies and other health care providers.
Hopes for a Senate vote on Thursday faded and were replaced with a plan to vote late Monday afternoon. If Congress blows the deadline, Medicare would stop processing payments to doctors until the payment fix is enacted.