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GOP Eyes Gains From Medicare Reform Law

If a compromise bill from Congress makes it to Bush, passage could give Republicans a big boost on what has been a Democratic issue.

June 29, 2003|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush urged House-Senate negotiators Saturday to reconcile differences in their separate bills to establish a prescription drug benefit under Medicare, as Republican strategists rejoiced in the prospect of defusing a favorite Democratic campaign issue.

Promises to pursue the drug benefit for the more than 40 million Medicare beneficiaries have been a perennial issue in Democratic appeals for seniors' votes.

But with the Republican-controlled House and Senate passing separate versions of the benefit, the GOP hopes it may have gained the upper hand.

"They've removed one of the Democrats' biggest political weapons," Republican strategist Scott Reed said Saturday.

How the issue plays out in next year's battle for control of Congress and the White House will depend on what emerges from congressional negotiations on a final bill.

In his weekly radio address, delivered the day after the two versions of the bill passed, Bush urged Congress to "finish the job of strengthening and modernizing Medicare so that I can sign this crucial reform into law."

"This is an issue of vital importance to senior citizens all across our country," Bush said. "They have waited years for a modern Medicare system and they should not have to wait any longer."

Bush will campaign for passage of the bill Monday when he meets with seniors in Miami, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

"The president will constantly push for [the Medicare overhaul legislation] because nothing is set in stone," Fleischer said. "No one should take this for granted. It requires ongoing work and ongoing effort."

If no bill emerges from Congress, political analysts say Bush and other Republicans are likely to blame Democrats for obstructing the most important reform in Medicare's 38-year history.

If Bush can sign a bill into law, Republicans can be expected to take credit for it on the campaign trail.

Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, said he already can see the GOP message: "All those Democratic leaders kept saying they were going to do this, but it took a Republican administration in the White House and Congress to actually get it done."

Democrats "could rouse a crowd to anger by saying 'Bush opposes a prescription drug benefit.' " said John J. Pitney, Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "It's hard to stir people by saying 'Bush approved a prescription drug benefit but the paperwork might be too complicated.' "

But Democrats may not be so quick to relinquish the issue.

Democratic strategists say Democrats will highlight their support for more generous benefits and other health-care issues, such as a "patient's bill of rights."

They also say that when the prescription drug benefit takes effect, it could fall short of seniors' expectations and lead to political backlash for Republicans.

"This may be a temporary salve for the Republicans," said Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, adding: "I don't think the Republicans can count on the bill cobbled together to defuse our advantage, because when voters go the polls in 2004, no one will have benefited from these bills yet."

The full drug benefit would not take effect until 2006, although a drug discount card would be made available sooner.

Both bills would provide $400 billion over 10 years to add a prescription drug benefit. They also would expand the private sector's role in providing health care to the elderly, a goal of GOP lawmakers who believe that more competition would keep down medical costs and save the government money.

Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) contended in Saturday's Democratic radio address that the prescription drug bill that passed the House by one vote would privatize one of the government's most popular programs.

"The better plan would not force seniors to leave Medicare to get prescription drug coverage," Ford said. "That is the plan my party supports."

But Bush said in his radio address: "Seniors should be able to choose the health-care plans that suit their needs. When health-care plans compete for their business, seniors will have better, more affordable options for their health coverage."

Bush, whose original proposal would have provided drug coverage for only those seniors who joined HMOs and other private health networks, said that under both bills, seniors who want to stay in the Medicare system will have that option, plus a new prescription drug benefit.

Democrats have complained that the measures leave gaps in coverage that would force seniors to pay for all medication expenses above a certain amount until catastrophic coverage begins.

Two of the four Democratic presidential candidates from the Senate -- Bob Graham of Florida and John Edwards of North Carolina -- voted against the Senate bill, which passed 76-21.

The two other candidates -- John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut -- were absent for the vote. Kerry would have voted against the Senate bill, but Lieberman would have voted for it, aides said.

Lieberman called the bill a start. "The best way to achieve significant Medicare reform is to lay this foundation today and then fix the roof tomorrow under my presidency," he said in a statement.

Reps. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), who also are running for president, voted against the House measure.

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