- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Lawmakers hashing out differences between the House and Senate Medicare prescription-drug bills emerged from a meeting with President Bush yesterday vowing to work in a bipartisan way and produce a final bill early this fall.

The Medicare conference is expected to meet today to finalize some of the less-contentious portions of the legislation, including regulatory reforms, in order to show progress.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, and other conferees hoped Mr. Bush would lay down a strict time limit for producing a final conference report, but he did not.

Still, Mr. Grassley said conferees generally agreed September is the goal, and it “must be done early this fall.” He said conference aides will work through August on five or six disputed provisions of the bill and produce several options for conferees to discuss.

“The clear message which the president stated … was the importance of us working together on a bipartisan basis,” said Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee.

But there appeared to be some tension even as some conferees met reporters as a group after the meeting.

Rep. Bill Thomas, California Republican and chairman of the conference, said talk of bipartisanship is good, but chastised lawmakers for sending letters demanding certain provisions be included in the final bill.

“You have to practice bipartisanship at all times, not just in front of the cameras,” he said.

Mr. Grassley later said it sounded like Mr. Thomas’ complaint was directed at fellow Medicare conferees, including himself, who were present at the press event. Mr. Grassley said he has not written any letters making demands.

Conference leaders are stressing bipartisanship because they are under pressure from many sides. Conservatives, especially in the House, want to move the final Medicare bill toward the Republican position. They want it to create more competition between private health plans and traditional Medicare, and hold down the cost of the new drug benefit by establishing a means test that would require wealthier seniors to pay for more of their drug benefit instead of relying on the government.

Sen. Don Nickles, Oklahoma Republican and a conferee, said he told Mr. Bush in yesterday’s meeting that he wants to make the final bill affordable, and that Mr. Bush agreed.

But conferees said Mr. Bush did not discuss specifics of the bills during yesterday’s meeting, which included House and Senate conferees from both parties as well as Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson.

Earlier yesterday, House Republicans who are not part of the conference and did not attend the meeting said the president should use the White House meeting to fight for provisions they want.

Among provisions to be ironed out is a House requirement for traditional Medicare to compete directly against private health plans starting in 2010.

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