- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 29, 2003

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich., Jan. 29 (UPI) — President George W. Bush proposed $400 billion for Medicare reform Wednesday while visiting the heartland of the United States, and also took the opportunity to argue his case for potential U.S. military action against a still-defiant Baghdad.

Bush traveled to Grand Rapids, Mich., a day after delivering his second State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.

In Michigan, Bush revisited key themes of his Tuesday night speech, calling for healthcare reform and arguing again that the nation may have deal with the threat posed by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Bush has been trying to steady an American public jittery over an unsteady U.S. economy, unstable stock market, rising unemployment and a growing crisis in the healthcare industry. At the same time, he has been preparing the country for a potential invasion of the Arab nation, an action that could cost billions of dollars with a yet undefined impact on domestic programs.

During his visit to Grand Rapids, Bush participated in a roundtable discussion on Medicare reform. The president wants to add the flexibility of a prescription drug program to the current Medicare while giving the seniors the choice of joining HMOs.

"One of the commitments we have made to our seniors is that they get good healthcare. The system was called Medicare. Medicare has been used as a political football, however. It's old — it's important, but it hasn't changed," Bush said.

The Bush White House has estimated 77 million Americans would be in Medicare by 2030. The administration last year proposed a Medicare Rx Drug Card Program that would provide pharmacy discounts to seniors. The initiative would secure manufacturer rebates and pass them on through to pharmacies and beneficiaries, resulting in lower prices.

Democrats have opposed the plan in favor of a government-administered plan requiring a $25 monthly premium payment.

Bush urged Congress to pass medical liability reform in an effort to address the escalating malpractice insurance crisis among physicians, some of who have walked off their jobs in protest of skyrocketing premiums.

In an effort to stimulate the economy, Bush proposed making his income tax reductions set for 2004 and 2006 permanent, effective this year. He proposed abolition of the marriage penalty and a child tax credit hike to $1,000, both effective immediately.

Bush proposed an end to taxes on shareholder dividends as a way to boost investor confidence. While he said it was fair to tax a corporation's profits, it was not fair to tax the shareholder on the same profits.

On education, Bush said it was essential to set high standards for children, challenge "the soft bigotry of low expectations" and insist states implement performance measures to determine whether programs are working.

His comments come as states have begun to balk over the president's education reform package that has required testing, accountability and an upgrade in teacher qualifications. State lawmakers say that the Bush administration has not fully funded the initiative, further taxing their already overstressed budgets.

Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., called Bush's policies familiar-sounding rhetoric that was putting him further out of touch with the American people.

"He claims he cares about education, then he refuses to fully fund his own education reforms. He says he wants to help seniors afford prescription drugs, then he proposes a plan to coerce seniors into HMOs to get prescription coverage," Daschle said.

Complicating the fiscal picture will be the president's desire to confront Iraq which Bush maintains has violated U.N. resolutions to show inspectors it has abandoned its chemical and biological weapons programs.

Should the U.S. military take action in Iraq, Bush could face a parallel with the administration of President Lyndon Johnson who in the 1960s fought both a war in Vietnam and a war on poverty at home.

Analysts say Johnson likely overstressed the federal budget by doing so. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that it could cost between $6 billion and $9 billion a month to prosecute a war in the Middle East.

Bush pointed out that while his domestic was "incredibly important nothing was more important than protecting the American people from harm.

"I knew one of my challenges was going to be to make sure people understood that distance between September the 11th, 2001, did not necessarily mean war had ended and your government can relax. War has not ended. The war that people brought to our soil still goes on," Bush said.

Bush alluded to possible ties between the Islamic extremist group al Qaida and Saddam without providing details, saying that "there's now a shadowy terrorist network which he could use as a forward army, attacking his worst enemy and never leave a fingerprint behind … "

"What's changed for America, besides the fact that he's still dangerous and could create havoc with friends in the neighborhood, is that there's now a shadowy terrorist network which he could use as a forward army, attacking his worst enemy and never leave a fingerprint behind, with deadly, deadly weapons. And that's what's changed," Bush said.

On Monday, chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix told the Security Council that Iraq was allowing access to sites within its borders, but was not providing full cooperation with the inspections demanded under the U.N. resolution

He said it should be clear that Hussein cannot be contained.

"You don't hope that therapy will somehow change his evil mind," Bush said.

Bush argued that the risk of doing nothing and assuming the best is not a risk worth taking. He urged world leaders to insist that Saddam disarm, but said that the United States would disarm the Arab leader if necessary.

"If war is brought upon us like I (said) last night, I want to assure you, particularly those who wear the uniform and those who have a loved one in the military, we will commit the full force and might of the United States military, and for the name of peace, we will prevail," Bush declared.


(Reported by Kathy Gambrell, UPI White House Reporter, in Washington)

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