WASHINGTON — Vice President Al Gore broadened his offensive against Bill Bradley's health care plan Sunday, even as he looked to rebut criticism from his rival by releasing details of his own agenda's cost.
In a televised interview, Gore repeated his accusation that Bradley's plan would "throw fiscal responsibility to the winds" and he opened a new front by arguing that steps Bradley has taken to minimize the program's cost would undermine its effectiveness.
Appearing separately on CBS-TV's "Face the Nation," Bradley dismissed Gore's charges, but sparked a new dispute between the contenders when he refused to rule out seeking an increase in the eligibility age for Social Security.
The competing Gore and Bradley television interviews--coming just days after they appeared side by side for the first time at a New Hampshire town meeting--underscored the rising temperature in the Democratic race less than three months before the first voters go to the polls in Iowa in January.
As in their New Hampshire encounter, the sharpest differences Sunday between the two contenders emerged over Bradley's health care plan.
In September, Bradley proposed spending what he said would be $65 billion a year on a sweeping plan to provide coverage for many of the 44 million Americans without health insurance. Bradley's plan would guarantee health insurance for all children and provide coverage for potentially millions of uninsured adults by supplying them with subsidies to buy into the same health plan as federal workers.
In the process, he would eliminate the Medicaid program for the poor and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for the children of the working poor.
Gore has proposed a more modest program that would expand the CHIP program to cover more children and as many as 7 million working adults. He also proposed tax credits for the uninsured and small businesses looking to cover their workers.
On Sunday, Bradley said the distinctions between the two plans "most clearly" illustrate the broader differences between the two candidates. "It's a big problem; it deserves a big solution," he said. "I've offered that and I think he's been much more incremental in nature. So I think that would lead us to being very different kinds of presidents."
On ABC-TV's "This Week," though, Gore repeated and intensified his criticism of Bradley's proposal. Gore again charged that the cost of Bradley's plan would chew up the entire expected budget surplus--precluding its use to strengthen Medicare. "If a Republican candidate had proposed eliminating Medicaid and taking away everything in the surplus that's needed to fix Medicare, all Democrats would be up in arms," Gore insisted.
Gore's charge that Bradley's plan would consume the entire surplus is based on a recent study by Kenneth E. Thorpe, an Emory University professor and former Clinton Administration official. Thorpe estimated Bradley's plan would cost $1.2 trillion over 10 years--almost twice Bradley's estimate.
In the last few days, Bradley and his aides have argued that Thorpe's study overestimates the cost of their plan, in part because the proposal would provide adults no more than $1,800 each to purchase insurance through the federal workers' system. (Thorpe assumed a higher cost.) On ABC Sunday, Gore charged that the $1,800 cap on aid would undermine the Bradley plan's effectiveness because 90% of the insurance plans offered in the federal workers' system cost more than that.
Capping the assistance at $1,800 would "severely reduce the number of people who are going to get coverage under Sen. Bradley's health care plan," charged Chris Lehane, Gore's campaign spokesman. "What started out as a universal health care plan is quickly unraveling."
Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser acknowledged 'there may be cases where [our proposal] doesn't fund every plan" but added, "it is a dramatic improvement over what is there now." And, Hauser insisted: "it's more incumbent on the Gore campaign to explain why they are satisfied with such a small level of additional coverage [in their proposal] than to attack a plan that makes dramatic progress toward universal coverage."
The two men also covered a range of other issues in their Sunday appearances. Among them:
* Gore pledged that, as president, he would appoint Supreme Court justices who support legalized abortion, even though he said he would not apply a "litmus test" on the issue. "I am confident that without using a single case as a litmus test that there are ways to understand whether or not a potential nominee has an understanding of the Constitution that is consistent with mine," he said.
* Bradley said that if he won the Democratic nomination he would ask President Clinton to campaign for him in the general election. "If he could help in some places I wouldn't hesitate to call him," he said.