Democrats today fell 5 votes short in the Senate when they pushed for floor action on a bill that would let the government bargain with manufacturers for lower Medicare Part D drug program prices.

Members of the Senate voted 55-42 to get the bill to the Senate floor by “invoking cloture,” or setting a time limit on discussions concerning the bill, but, under Senate rules, supporters of the bill, H.R. 4, need 60 votes to agree to cloture and clear the bill for floor action.

The bill under consideration today is weaker than the bill the House passed in January, which would have required the government to negotiate for lower Medicare drug prices, but the Bush administration has implied that it would veto the Senate version of the bill as well as the House version. Current law prohibits the government from negotiating Part D prices directly with drug manufacturers.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, has proposed letting the government negotiate for lower prices if Medicare recipients ask it to, but, even if Congress approved a compromise bill and sent it to the White House, supporters would need 67 votes in the Senate to override a veto. The idea of supporters getting 67 votes for the bill seems to be unrealistic in light of today’s vote, according to Tim Vandenberg, an analyst at Washington Analysis, Washington.

America’s Health Insurance Plans, Washington, has opposed H.R. 4 and argued that the current Part D system is working well for the 22 million program beneficiaries, by putting private drug plans in charge of negotiating with the drug manufacturers.

“We look forward to working with members of Congress to improve the prescription drug benefit without undermining the successes achieved so far,” AHIP spokesman Mohit Ghose said in a statement.