Senate Approves Medicare Measure

Senators have approved legislation that would void a 10-point-6 percent pay cut for doctors treating Medicare patients. Senator Ted Kennedy, who has been recovering from a brain tumor, made a surprising return to Capitol Hill and cast a crucial "aye" vote.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In addition to voting on FISA, there was another dramatic outcome in the Senate this afternoon. Republicans defied their leaders and President Bush to pass a bill that will reverse a 10 percent pay cut to doctors in the Medicare program. The scene in the Senate was all the more dramatic, thanks to a surprise appearance from Senator Ted Kennedy. He's been home in Massachusetts to be treated for a brain tumor.

And NPR's Julie Rovner is here to explain exactly what happened today. Hello, Julie.

JULIE ROVNER: Hello, Michele.

NORRIS: Let's start with the Medicare bill. It's becoming something of a political football.

ROVNER: Yes, and with all kinds of trick plays and gadget devices. The bill really has had bipartisan support for the part of it that would cancel the pay cut for doctors. Everybody agrees that that should happen, that they shouldn't take this 10 percent cut. What they've disagreed on is how to pay for it. In the bill, there would be reductions in some of the payments to private plans that serve Medicare. Republicans have been mostly dead set against that - at least President Bush and the Republicans in the Senate.

In the House, this bill passed overwhelmingly by a six-to-one margin. In the Senate, just before the July 4th break, it didn't get 60 votes that it needs to go ahead, it fell one vote short. That was a really big surprise.

NORRIS: And so, when Congress went home for the July 4th recess, the cut took effect.

ROVNER: Yes. Well, not exactly. The administration said, we're going to maybe sit on these bills for a while. We're not going to process any of the bills from the doctors. Until Congress comes back, maybe they'll be able to work this out in hopes that it won't really happen. But in the meantime, the American Medical Association, which represents the doctors, started running all kinds of ads in the districts of these senators who voted no.

NORRIS: So Congress is now back in recess, takes this up, and there's been these defections.

ROVNER: Yes, and I think that was not really what we expected to happen. The Democrats came back and thought Republicans were going to still vote no, so they brought back Senator Kennedy to be their 60th vote. Remember, they were only one vote short last time.

NORRIS: That's right. So how did they do this? What happened?

ROVNER: Well, Senator Kennedy came, he voted yes. They thought they had 60 votes. And then at the very end, all these Republicans changed their votes. And lo and behold, they got 69 votes, more than enough to override the threatened veto. And this is pretty much now - it seems to be a done deal because now, there's an override majority in the House and then override majority in the Senate.

NORRIS: Just quickly, how did Senator Kennedy looked today?

ROVNER: He looked pretty good. Actually, I was really surprised. I only saw him on TV but walking under his own power got a huge ovation from everyone on both sides as he came in.

NORRIS: Thank you, Julie.

ROVNER: You're welcome.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Julie Rovner talking about the Senate vote this afternoon on Medicare.

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