WASHINGTON - Despite the House's surprisingly easy passage early yesterday of a bill to let U.S. consumers buy lower-cost prescription drugs from other countries, the measure's opponents - including the Bush administration - seem to have built a solid bipartisan wall in the Senate to thwart it.
The House's 243-186 vote for the drug import bill, which came hours before the chamber adjourned for its summer break, was a sharp setback for the administration and the pharmaceutical industry.
In a sign of growing public outrage about the higher prices for many brand-name medications in the United States compared with other countries, 87 Republicans deserted their party leadership to join with 155 Democrats and the one House independent to pass the bill.
It would allow individuals, pharmacists and drug wholesalers in the United States to import certain prescription drugs from licensed facilities in several industrialized nations, including Canada, members of the European Union, Australia, Israel, New Zealand and South Africa.
Purchases from Mexico would remain prohibited.
A spokesman for Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican who opposed the bill, acknowledged that lawmakers had sent a loud message. "The will of the House said to the pharmaceutical companies: 'We need more price fairness,'" said the spokesman, John Feehery.
But the bill's opponents delivered a strong counterpunch: a letter signed by 53 Democratic and Republican senators opposing any measure that would weaken the power of federal officials to block drug imports because of safety concerns.
"We do not believe it would be prudent to remove these vital safeguards," the senators wrote.
The signatories included such ideological opposites as Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, indicating the depth of Senate concern about the safety of drug imports.
The letter means that, barring a reversal of opinion, the House bill might not even surface in the Senate.
Administration officials have made clear their opposition to the bill. In a sharply worded letter to lawmakers this week, Food and Drug Commissioner Mark B. McClellan said the measure would open "a wide channel for large volumes of unapproved drugs and other products to enter the United States that are potentially injurious to public health and pose a threat to the security of our nation's drug supply."
Last month, McClellan also voiced concern about a Senate-approved amendment to a Medicare reform bill that would allow a one-year trial of drug imports from Canada. But the Senate provision, unlike the House bill, would allow top administration health officials to block the program if they cannot certify that the imports are safe.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.