Feb. 20, 2006 – The controversial budget bill recently signed into law carried a significant language discrepancy when lawmakers approved it, raising the possibility that it will need another vote. At issue is a Medicare-related provision that was, contrary to law, recorded differently in versions of the bill passed by the Senate and House.
According to reports, a Senate clerk inadvertently almost tripled the length of time the federal government will pay for medical-equipment rentals for patients, from thirteen months to 36, when writing up the House version of the so-called Deficit Reduction Act. The problem was noted and the numbers changed back to the agreed-upon 13 months after the House voted on the faulty language and before President Bush signed the bill.
Members of both major parties have identified serious constitutional problem with the legislation and contend it cannot be counted as law.
Last Monday, Alabama Republican activist and lawyer Jim Zeigler announced that he had filed a lawsuit asking that the act be declared unconstitutional because the versions of the bill approved by the House and Senate are different. Under the Constitution, both chambers of Congress must approve identical language before it can be signed into law.
"An eighth grader in civics class knows that a bill cannot become law unless the identical bill passes the House and Senate and is signed by the president," Zeigler said in a statement announcing the suit. "Congressmen did not read the bill, and they made a serious, foolish mistake. The Senate bill says patients dependent on medical equipment such as oxygen get to live for 13 months. The House bill says they get to live 36 months."
Prior to passage of the Deficit Reduction Act, Medicare paid for such equipment for as long as it was needed.
After news of the purported error became public, the Senate approved a resolution correcting the problem that was subsequently refused by House democrats who want a new vote on the entire legislation.
Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tried to force an investigation into the issue but was stymied by a 219â€“187 party-line vote. According to the text of her resolution, the 23-month difference in Medicare equipment payments amounts to about $2 billion.
The budget bill barely passed Congress last year. In the Senate, Vice President Dick Cheney had to cast the tie-breaking vote and in the House it passed by just two votes, 216â€“214. The programs severely cut by the legislation include Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps and student loans.