WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate dealt a blow to the drug lobby Thursday by voting to permit people in the United States to order lower-cost drugs from Canada over the Internet.
The prescription drug plan, by Republican Sen. David Vitter, passed the Senate by a 55-36 vote that added it to a $42.9 billion bill funding the Homeland Security Department. The Senate then approved the homeland security measure by a 84-6 vote Thursday night.
Critics said Vitter's amendment would open a gaping loophole that would expose people to Internet scams and unsafe drugs, but the allure of importing U.S.-made drugs from other countries where government policies have driven prices lower has long had a pull on lawmakers.
But so too has the drug lobby, which has always defeated attempts to allow consumers widespread access to "reimported" drugs. Several Democratic leaders, including Majority Leader Harry Reid and his top lieutenant, Dick Durbin, initially opposed Vitter's amendment, only switching their votes after it became clear the popular idea would pass.
Their doubts about the idea may ensure the drug importation rule gets dropped during negotiations between the House of Representatives and the Senate on a final bill. Currently, U.S. travelers may return with a three-month supply of drugs when crossing the border.
The development capped a day of dizzying activity on Capitol Hill on six different spending bills for the 2010 budget year.
First, the House passed an agriculture bill that pays to add millions of people to the food stamp program. A popular program that gives additional food aid for children and pregnant women received a 10 percent increase in funding.
The Agriculture Department announced this week that a record 33.8 million people -- or 1 in 9 Americans -- were participating in the food stamp program as of April, the rolls swollen by rising unemployment. That's up 1.2 million people from two months earlier and up 5.6 million from the same time last year.
The House then approved by a 318-106 vote $49 billion for foreign aid and the State Department budget. The bill included aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan, critical U.S. allies in fighting the Taliban, and to Israel and Egypt, as well as money to fight AIDS and hunger in the developing world.
To blunt criticism that they were boosting foreign aid during a deep recession, Democrats argued that the measure represents a $1.2 billion cut of more than 2 percent from current-year funding. Republicans countered that the measure would provide a $12.2 billion, 33 percent increase over 2009 levels. The difference of opinion involves whether "emergency" money provided in fiscal 2009 war funding bills should be part of the calculation.
The truth is somewhere in between, but at a minimum, the House measure provides a 4 percent increase over current funding. That's because Democrats used the war funding bill passed in June to pre-fund $2.4 billion worth of next year's aid to Israel, Egypt and other countries.
The Senate homeland security bill also contains a Republican plan to extend permanently the E-Verify program, which uses the Social Security database to check whether workers are in the country legally. It would also require companies doing business with the federal government to use the system.
Republicans had also added language to require double fencing along 700 miles (1,100 kilometers) of the border with Mexico rather than vehicle barriers and high-tech equipment.
The Senate Appropriations Committee was also busy, adopting three bills. Democrats dealt a blow to the anti-abortion movement by voting to permanently reverse a policy under recent Republican administrations that banned giving U.S. taxpayer money to international groups that perform abortions or provide abortion information. The move came during debate on a $49 billion foreign aid bill.
The 17-11 vote by the Appropriations Committee would give the existing policy -- set by Obama by executive order days after taking office -- the force of law. That means the next Republican president would not be able to put the ban back in place with the stroke of a pen as has been recent practice.
Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan won approval of a plan to ease Bush administration rules requiring upfront payment from Cuba for imports of U.S. food. Dorgan says the Treasury Department is refusing to abide by an earlier attempt passed by Congress to effectively waive the Bush rule.