- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2003

President Bush has resisted getting personally involved in long-stalled negotiations on Medicare’s overhaul, leaving the heavy lifting to a Cabinet secretary and senior aides, but he is expected to apply more pressure with a speech today.

The president’s senior adviser, Karl Rove, met with senior congressional Republicans and lobbyists yesterday to strategize as conference members tried to reach a tentative agreement on a plan to spend $400 billion over the next 10 years to include prescription-drug coverage in Medicare.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, described by the president as his “point person” with Congress on Medicare reform, has been visiting with legislators nearly every day for weeks to get a bill on the president’s desk before the end of the year.

“The whole Medicare team for the administration has put in countless hours,” said White House spokesman Trent Duffy. “Clearly, there is the realization that this is the closest the Congress has been in a very long time, and we don’t want to miss this opportunity to get the job done.”

He said the notion that the White House hasn’t been trying hard enough to get a bill passed is wrong.

“The president has been directly involved since Day One,” said Mr. Duffy, noting the effort has been ongoing since Mr. Bush introduced his Medicare-reform ideas in January 2001.

But last night, one senior Democratic Senate staffer said negotiations on the bill “are breaking down as we speak,” and unless the president gets personally involved, the whole process will crumble.

“With all due respect, this issue at this point in time transcends either Thompson or [Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services administrator Tom] Scully,” the aide said. “This needs the active involvement of either the vice president or the president.”

The aide characterized White House meetings with congressional leaders as “mere photo-ops with no substantive negotiations.”

“The question is whether [Mr. Bush] is going to finally step up to the plate,” said the staffer, adding that unless there is compromise with the Democrats, there won’t be Medicare reform this year.

Republicans are demanding that Medicare eventually compete with private insurance companies. Democrats oppose most efforts toward that end.

Mr. Bush’s Medicare speech tomorrow in Orlando, Fla., will be simulcast at events attended by senior members of his administration in Dallas, Denver, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Phoenix. Some of the events will be sponsored by AARP, a powerful lobbying group considered the chief guardian of Medicare.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, has characterized the Medicare-reform bill being hammered out in conference as a “privatization plan” that would mean “the end of Medicare as we’ve known it for all these 40 years.”

Sen. John B. Breaux, Louisiana Democrat, said Democrats will be feeling political pressure in 2004 if the long-awaited reform of this huge entitlement is not completed this year.

“Democrats have told me that coming up to an election, they don’t want to disappoint seniors again,” Mr. Breaux said.

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