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House heads for Medicare drug vote,,

The House headed for a historic vote Friday night on a bill that would a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, marking the biggest expansion // of the politically popular entitlement program in its 38-year history.

"The moon and the stars have lined up in our favor," House Speaker Dennis Hastert said at a rally-style press conference in the Capitol. "The time is upon us. It's now or never."

Republican leaders were still pressing wavering GOP conservatives to vote for the bill, which carries a 10-year price tag of $395 billion. Conservatives have balked at the price tag, arguing that the measure offers too little in the way of private competition and other measures designed to hold down future costs.

"I predict right now it will come out double that," Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., told fellow House-Senate negotiators on Thursday, referring to the cost estimate.

Top House Democrats, meanwhile, were pressuring rank-and-file members to hold the line against the package, setting the stage for a close vote in the late-night or early-morning hours.

Democrats contend the competition and other cost-containment provisions that accompany the outpatient drug benefit will undermine the traditional Medicare over the long run, hurting seniors and enriching pharmaceutical companies and HMOs.

"We were shut out of these negotiations ... and what we have here now is an evisceration of Medicare," said Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla.

The House and Senate each passed their own versions of a Medicare drug bill earlier this year -- the House by one vote. Republican House and Senate negotiators and two Democrats -- Sens. Max Baucus of Montana and John Breaux of Louisiana -- reached agreement on a final bill last Saturday.

Negotiators, with the cooperation of Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, have tweaked the compromise in recent days in an effort to build support among dissatisfied Senate
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