WASHINGTON — House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) congratulated the Senate on Sunday for its recent passage of controversial legislation to reform Medicare, and he predicted House approval of a similar measure if President Clinton first endorses it.
The Senate bill, which would require affluent seniors to pay substantially more for their Medicare benefits and raise the program's eligibility age to 67 from 65, has been bitterly opposed by advocates for the elderly and by liberal defenders of the traditional Medicare program.
With a Senate-House conference committee designated to resolve differences between the two chambers' tax and spending bills, designed to balance the federal budget within five years, Gingrich said senators tried to deal with the reality that "we're living a lot longer."
"I think that sooner or later we're going to have to face those kind of changes if the Medicare system is going to survive when the baby boomers and their children retire," the speaker said on CBS-TV's "Face the Nation."
Gingrich said he had spoken with President Clinton and his aides about the Senate-passed Medicare bill. "I'm encouraged that they haven't come out automatically and killed it," he said.
The White House last week sent congressional Republicans a list of provisions it likes and dislikes in the wide-ranging tax and spending bills. While not threatening a veto, Clinton said he would like to eliminate the Senate bill's increase in the Medicare eligibility age as well as its boost in monthly premiums for wealthier recipients.
The House-passed version of the bill does not contain the bigger premiums or higher eligibility age.
Gingrich said Medicare reform "depends very heavily on the president being willing to take a leadership role and actually coming out for the kind of changes that I think, in the end, will be very good for our children and grandchildren [and] make the system more stable."
Noting that the Senate voted overwhelmingly and bipartisanly for Medicare changes, the speaker said, "I think it took great courage on their part, and I commend them for having the courage to say to the entire country, 'The time has come to save Medicare for our children and grandchildren and to recognize that as we live longer, there have to be some realistic changes.' I think that's a responsible position."
Two years ago, Clinton did major political damage to those Republicans who even suggested the possibility of trimming the growth in Medicare benefits, and Gingrich is apparently not willing to go out on that limb again unless Clinton is right beside him.
Asked about progress in discussions with the White House on tax legislation, Gingrich said agreement on a bill that would include a $500-per-child credit could be reached in another few days of intense negotiations. The sticking point, Gingrich said, is that Clinton wants to convert the credit into an outright payment to families that owe less than $500 in federal income taxes.
"The president's people want us to take money from taxpayers and transfer it to people who are paying no federal income tax. . . . We don't think a tax-cut bill designed to help people who pay taxes should be turned into a welfare bill."