The Senate has narrowly rejected a plan to allow Americans to import low-cost prescription drugs from Canada and other countries.
The amendment by North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan failed on a 51-48 vote. Sixty votes were needed to prevail.
Importing prescription drugs for personal use is a violation of federal law. Dorgan's amendment would have lifted the ban, allowing access to low-cost medicines from developed countries where the government limits drug prices.
As a senator, President Barack Obama supported drug imports, but his administration now echoes the objections of the pharmaceutical industry that it would cause safety problems.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate's leading proponent of letting people buy less expensive drugs from abroad says a rival proposal adding safety requirements was merely an attempt to kill his plan.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., spoke Tuesday before a showdown vote over his measure, which would let American pharmacies and drug wholesalers import federally approved drugs from Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
Both the pharmaceutical industry and the Obama administration were lobbying against the proposal, saying it would not protect people from potentially dangerous or ineffective drugs. Dorgan's plan would cost drug makers billions of dollars and has bipartisan support.
A standoff over the proposal has been one of several factors complicating work on President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, which has been snagged in the Senate for two weeks.
Senators were also voting on an alternative by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., whose state is a center of the pharmaceutical industry. Lautenberg's proposal permits drug imports but adds a requirement that the U.S. government certify that the imports will be safe — a guarantee that Democrats and Republicans agree would be impossible to make.
Dorgan and others saw Lautenberg's amendment as a way to lure away Dorgan's supporters. The North Dakotan has introduced his drug import amendment repeatedly over the last decade, only to see the Senate effectively kill it by adding requirements for safety guarantees.
"Lautenberg is a nullifier amendment," Dorgan said in a brief interview. "We've seen that before, and the pharmaceutical industry supports advancing this as a way to defeat importation."
Many countries have price controls that let them charge lower prices than are common in the U.S.
Though Obama supported the importation of low-price drugs when he was running for the White House last year, the Food and Drug Administration last week criticized Dorgan's proposal for not doing enough to ensure that drugs entering the U.S. from abroad will be safe. Dorgan says his amendment has strong safeguards, such as allowing imports only of FDA-approved drugs from FDA-approved foreign plants.
White House officials have denied accusations by Dorgan's supporters that the administration was opposing importation as a way of retaining the drug industry's support for Obama's health care overhaul legislation, the president's top domestic priority.
In June, the industry agreed to provide consumers and the government with $80 billion in savings. Drug makers have spent tens of millions of dollars on TV ads promoting the health overhaul effort, making them one of the biggest advertisers in this year's health care fight, and the administration has little interest in antagonizing its ally.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget office has estimated that Dorgan's plan would save the federal government $19 billion over the coming decade. Dorgan has estimated it would save American consumers four times that amount.
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