- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2000

Republicans neared final agreement yesterday on a 10-year, $245 billion plan that would provide a host of tax cuts to encourage retirement savings, ease the cost of health insurance and foster investment in blighted urban and underdeveloped rural areas.

"I think this is a very fair bill and represents a lot of people's interests," Senate Finance Committee Chairman William V. Roth Jr., Delaware Republican, said of what he called the "final version" of the bill. "I hope [the president] will not veto this legislation."

While Democrats agreed with, and even wrote, many of the proposals, they said key concerns remain and that President Clinton's signature is not certain. They cited doubts on whether Republicans have funded his school-construction bond proposal and addressed other administration concerns.

Even some Republicans said details of the bill had not been worked out within their party yet.

"There are just some things still out there," said a House Ways and Means Committee aide.

It appears no changes have been made to a package of payment increases for Medicare providers, to which the administration and Democrats have objected.

They argue that nearly half of the $70 billion to $90 billion the package would cost over the next decade would go to health maintenance organizations (HMOs) without any assurances those HMOs would provide better services to seniors.

The White House and Democrats argue that much of the money going to HMOs go to other Medicare providers.

"As I understand it, the HMO language is still unacceptable and most likely be vetoed," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said after a meeting with White House aides.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, rebutted: "I'd find it, frankly, unfathomable, that he would veto this bill."

Mr. Clinton, however, was noncommittal.

"I don't want to turn this into a big political fight," he said when asked yesterday if he would veto the tax bill over the Medicare dispute. "I just think this is one where the facts should get out, and we should do what the facts indicate is the best-balanced thing to do with the money we have available for all the providers."

Despite the sparring, the White House and Republican leaders seem intent on passing a tax bill.

Mr. Clinton started the day with a conciliatory letter to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, outlining a possible compromise tax bill.

Mr. Hastert quickly responded, noting areas where Republicans had conceded to administration demands such as dropping an effort to repeal a federal unemployment surtax and extending the work-opportunity tax credit and outlining in friendly language the areas where he hoped they could agree to disagree.

For example, Republicans will not impose federal "prevailing wages" standards on school construction made possible by expanded bonding authority. Democrats say the provision is needed to maintain fair wages; Republicans say it is just a sop to unions.

Nor will they back off a plan for an above-the-line deduction to employees for health insurance. Republicans say it will expand health care coverage, but Democrats say it might lead employers to drop health insurance for workers.

"You may disagree with some of the details in this bill, just as some of our members disagree with other details," Mr. Hastert wrote.

But, he said, "You should be proud of the many accomplishments that this legislation represents for your priorities."

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