- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2003

The nation’s leading seniors’ advocacy group, the AARP, yesterday strongly endorsed the White House-backed Medicare prescription-drug bill and pledged to “work vigorously for its passage,” including a $7 million three-day ad blitz starting tomorrow.

Republican leaders said the endorsement will help secure votes for the bill and fend off Democratic arguments that the legislation will undermine Medicare by giving private plans too big of a role in providing seniors with the new drug benefit.

“AARP gives you the ‘Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval’ when it comes to seniors’ issues,” said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican. “They care deeply about the future of Medicare, and they wouldn’t endorse something that would lead to the end of that program as some critics contend.”

Democratic leaders attacked the endorsement, saying the group had caved in on the principles it laid out in a July letter that any final agreement must have.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, called it “a mistake that does not serve the interests of its members” and predicted that “when seniors see the details of the Republican plan, the AARP leadership will undoubtedly regret this ill-advised decision.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said she was “deeply disappointed” in the organization.

From the other side, one House conservative who opposes the bill said the endorsement might backfire by helping push other House Republicans to join him in opposition.

“That’ll help our cause,” said Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican. “You don’t know how many conservative colleagues I’ve talked to who have said that if the AARP is for [the bill], it has to be bad.”

Mr. Pence explained that many conservatives view the AARP as a group that always supports government spending and works against true reform.

Indeed, one of the reasons the AARP cited for supporting the bill is that the Republicans agreed to scale back the provision demanded by House conservatives that would require Medicare to compete directly against private health plans. Under the final bill, that is reduced to a demonstration project in six cities.

“AARP is pleased by the improvements made,” the statement read, pointing out that the bill’s competition provision was “downsized to a limited test starting in 2010, which has significant protections for those in traditional Medicare.”

The organization, which claims 35 million members 50 and older, is planning to spend $7 million on its ad campaign, which will start tomorrow. Commercials will run on national cable stations and local broadcast channels, and ads will run in 50 newspapers across the country.

John Rother, the group’s policy director, told reporters that AARP was prepared to spend more if Congress has not voted before Friday.

An AARP spokesman said although the bill isn’t perfect, it is good and necessary.

“We’ve got to take advantage of this opportunity,” said Steve Hahn, AARP spokesman, referring to the $400 billion set aside in this year’s budget to create the new Medicare drug benefit.

House Republican leaders are making a similar argument to their wary conservatives — pointing out that the bill contains key Medicare reforms and the opportunity for such reforms will not come around again soon, one top aide said.

The reforms include $6 billion for the tax-preferred health savings accounts for individuals, a new requirement that wealthier seniors pay higher premiums for doctor visits under Medicare and a new mechanism requiring Congress to consider presidential recommendations once Medicare costs get too high.

Meanwhile, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, continued his assault on the legislation yesterday, saying it has a “$12 billion slush fund to lure” private health plans into offering health care to seniors and also contains the direct-competition demonstration project, which he said will increase Medicare premiums.

He said the bill will “undermine Medicare and threaten our seniors now and in the years to come,” and “doesn’t deserve to pass.”

Although most House conservatives are refusing official comment until they read the text of the bill and are briefed by Republican leaders — one briefing was scheduled for last night — Republicans plan to use Democrats’ opposition to convince their members of the bill’s merits.

“We’re going to win with our conservatives out of pure partisanship,” said one House aide. “Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, Tom Daschle don’t just dislike it, they hate it.”

But some Republican aides privately said there is real disappointment in the ranks, and some members already have voiced strong opposition.

“This proposal flies in the face of the principles of limited government and individual responsibility that Republicans are supposed to stand for,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who voted against the initial House Medicare bill. “The enormous cost of this proposal will only hasten Medicare’s insolvency.”

Still, others were guardedly optimistic. Rep. Paul D. Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican who voted for the House Medicare bill and led the fight for the direct-competition idea, said the bill’s competition pilot project is much better than the pilot proposal suggested last week.

“This new compromise sure sounds a lot better, but I’m going to have to read the bill before I make up my mind,” he said.

Rep. Bill Thomas, California Republican, was opposed to the demonstration project Republican leaders proposed last week, but is supporting the scaled-back provision included in the final agreement. Mr. Ryan said Mr. Thomas’ support helps ease his mind a little.

Republican leaders are also using Mr. Thomas’ support of the pilot project to sell the bill to conservatives who are wary of the scaled-back provision.

“This is a Thomas-driven proposal that will result in competition,” said Rep. Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican and chief deputy majority whip.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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