- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2003

President Bush yesterday pressured Congress to produce a Medicare prescription-drug bill this year, but didn’t weigh in directly on the sticky issues hampering a final deal.

“Though a few difficult issues remain, the Congress has made tremendous progress, and now is the time to finish the work,” Mr. Bush said yesterday in a speech on Medicare. “I want to sign the legislation into law before the year is out.”

Mr. Bush wants Medicare to provide a prescription-drug benefit and has asked for reforms giving seniors more choices of private health care plans.

House and Senate negotiators have struggled to resolve tough points, including whether to add a provision — demanded by House conservatives but opposed by Senate Democrats — that would require Medicare to compete directly against private plans starting in 2010.

House conservatives also want a mechanism to ensure that the cost of the new drug benefit does not exceed the budgeted $400 billion over 10 years.

Mr. Bush did not weigh in on either of those issues.

Rep. Sue Myrick, North Carolina Republican, said they hoped Mr. Bush would endorse the provisions backed by House conservatives.

“She’d like to see the president weigh in to get it moving in the right direction,” said her spokesman, Andy Polk.

“We got a pep talk short on details,” Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, said of Mr. Bush’s speech.

Democrats wanted Mr. Bush to push for a more bipartisan bill.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said the president must reject the House Republicans’ demands if he wants a bill this year.

“I urge the president to disavow these proposals and support a fair compromise,” he said in a statement.

The final bill has a few outstanding issues remaining. A House aide said lead negotiator Rep. Bill Thomas, California Republican, was set to release a revised proposal late yesterday.

Earlier this week, the top Senate Republican negotiator, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, said the cost-containment mechanism in the final bill probably would just be a “fig leaf” so leaders “can say we’re containing costs.”

That news did not bode well for House conservatives.

“If people think they’re going to get conservative votes based on a ‘fig leaf,’ I think they’re wrong,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican.

A House Republican aide not directly involved in the talks said conservatives wanted to include a provision raising premiums or cutting benefits if the new drug benefit exceeded projected costs. But the final bill’s provision likely will just ask Congress to examine the issue once costs get too high.

Key Democratic negotiator Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana agreed that the final bill likely would contain the softer approach.

“It’s going to take more than a fig leaf for many House conservatives, that’s for sure,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican.

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