The health care debate ground to a halt Thursday over a squabble among Democrats that could threaten the deal President Obama struck with pharmaceutical companies to earn their support for the health care overhaul.
Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, wants the Senate to vote on his plan to allow prescription drugs to be imported to the United States, saying it will cut costs for American consumers. But some Democratic senators are fighting that move as they, the Obama administration and drug companies say the safety of foreign-made drugs can't be verified.
Senate leaders on Thursday set aside the health care bill and Mr. Dorgan's amendment to begin work on a catchall spending bill to fund much of the government for fiscal 2010.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, tried to set up a vote on the amendment late Thursday, but Republicans objected, saying they had only just seen the 100-page proposal.
"This is a ploy to stop us from proceeding on this bill," Mr. Reid said.
Republicans accused Democrats of working at the White House's behest to block a vote on Mr. Dorgan's amendment, which has bipartisan support, until they were sure they had the votes to defeat it.
"The White House as well as [Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America] have been over here lobbying furiously, and I know for a fact Democrats aren't sure they have the votes to defeat it," said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a co-sponsor of Mr. Dorgan's amendment. "We all know what this is about. We all know it's the deal PhRMA cut."
A spokesman for PhRMA denied making such an agreement.
The moves left the health care bill at a logjam and underscored the difficult balance for Democrats to hold together support for their legislation.
Also on Thursday, Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said he will propose an amendment to remove a tax on high-priced health care plans, a controversial but key source of revenue in the bill. Labor unions strongly oppose the tax, which they say would hit middle-class union members with good health care plans.
Democrats said they're getting no help from Republicans on passing health care and said the GOP's interest in getting votes on amendments is disingenuous.
"You can't tell America you don't want health care reform and then complain about votes," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Mr. Reid. "They frankly have no desire to legislate on this bill."
Mr. Dorgan said he had not been approached by the White House to withdraw his amendment, but said he's heard from a "couple" of Senate colleagues who said they'd try to block a vote.
"I understand that there are people walking on eggshells that if we would pass legislation allowing the American people the freedom to re-import lower-priced drugs, that somehow the pharmaceutical industry might not support the health care bill," he said. "That's not something I've had conversations about, but I understand that's what is being represented to others."
The Democrats' chief vote counter, Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, said Wednesday that leaders are not "buttonholing" senators to vote against the re-importation amendment.
Mr. Dorgan's amendment would allow drugs to be sent to the United States from approved pharmacies or wholesalers in Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland and certain countries in the European Union. Only drugs that are currently sold in the United States could be sent, and they would have to have the same active ingredients, strength and dosage levels as their U.S. counterparts.
"U.S. consumers are charged the highest prices in the world for FDA-approved brand-name prescription drugs, and that's just not fair," Mr. Dorgan said.
The White House agreed to oppose legislation allowing re-importation, according to a New York Times report in August. PhRMA reportedly made a deal that it would contribute $80 billion toward reform over 10 years in exchange for its support of the bill, as long as it didn't have to take a further hit, including re-importation.
But a PhRMA spokesman now denies that drug re-importation was part of the agreement, calling it "urban legend."
Still, PhRMA and the administration oppose the amendment.
The Food and Drug Administration said in a letter to Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat, on Tuesday that the legislation tries to address safety measures but that there are still "significant safety concerns" over some products and that "the resulting structure would be logistically challenging to implement and resource intensive."
PhRMA spokesman Ken Johnson said the amendment doesn't have enough safety assurances.
"If importation is passed without a safety certification, people are going to die," he said, pointing to lax standards in other countries. "Senator Dorgan's amendment does not have the kind of safety certification that is necessary to guarantee that Americans can buy medications from abroad with confidence."
Mr. Dorgan said that his amendment would save the federal government $100 billion over 10 years and impose higher safety standards on foreign drugs than those currently imposed on the domestic supply.
Mr. Obama co-sponsored legislation similar to Mr. Dorgan's when he was in the Senate.
But Mr. Carper told reporters Thursday that Mr. Obama's administration has since "looked at the safety and soundness concerns and found them convincing."