Members of the House voted 255-170 to pass H.R. 4, a bill that directs the secretary of Health and Human Services to negotiate for lower Medicare plan prescription prices directly with drug manufacturers.

All 231 participating Democrats voted for the bill, and 24 Republicans crossed party lines to vote for it. But opponents of the bill are predicting supporters will have a hard time rounding up the 60 votes needed in the Senate to get the bill to the Senate floor.

The Bush administration Thursday said the president will veto H.R. 4 if it gets through Congress.

The bill was introduced by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

In the Senate, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said Thursday during a Finance Committee hearing that he would prefer to support a bill that would merely remove current restrictions on efforts by the federal government to negotiate directly with drug manufacturers.

“The ‘non-interference clause’ in the original Medicare Modernization Act is prohibiting us from pursuing constructive efforts to make the benefit work better for seniors,” Baucus said. “The total prohibition on negotiation should be eliminated.”

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the most senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee and the sponsor of the Senate’s Medicare drug plan bill, praised Baucus’s proposal.

“If we can come up with something that doesn’t harm the great success of the competitiveness of the 2003 bill, I’m willing to look at it,” Grassley said.

In comments after the House vote, Grassley accused “partisan Democrats” of launching a campaign to smear the new prescription drug benefit.

“Unfortunately the sound bite isn’t sound policy,” Grassley said. “It’s bad for Medicare beneficiaries and other consumers alike. Nobody wins. I hope the Senate will defeat this bill and if not, I look forward to a presidential veto.”

A consumer group is supporting H.R. 4 and criticizing the administration’s veto threat.

“The vote today by the House is an important step to make Medicare drug prices more affordable for America’s seniors and taxpayers,” said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, Washington. “Seniors who need multiple medicines are being priced out of the drugs they need, and this will provide real relief for them.”

The Senate should act quickly to pass H.R. 4, Pollack said.