- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 10, 2006

ORLANDO, Fla. — President Bush yesterday again urged all seniors to sign up for the Medicare prescription drug program by Monday’s deadline, as Democratic and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill jockeyed to lock down a political winner going into the November elections.

“There’s a May 15th deadline coming up,” the president said at the Puerto Rican Club of Central Florida on the last day of a three-day trip to pitch the program. “Sign up now. Now’s the time. This is a good deal. It’s the government doing its duty to provide modern medicine for our seniors.”

Seniors who fail to meet the deadline or decide to sign up later this year face higher premiums annually, but some are still struggling with the complexities of the 40 available programs. In addition, some Medicare offices — and the federal government’s own Web site — have been overwhelmed by procrastinators trying to enroll before the cutoff.

Democrats who have opposed the drug benefit plan, the largest social welfare program in 50 years, continue to criticize the complex system, and yesterday called on the president to extend the deadline.

“The White House botched the implementation of the prescription drug plan, and millions have been unable to navigate their way through the confusing sign-up process. Democrats believe they shouldn’t be penalized for it,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said during an appearance with about 200 seniors on Capitol Hill. “It is time for Republicans to put America’s seniors first and extend this deadline.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi added: “In five days, Republicans will hit our seniors with an arbitrary deadline, and an arbitrary tax. Democrats stand united to extend the May 15th deadline and end the Bush prescription drug tax.”

Mr. Bush has repeatedly opposed changing the deadline, and an estimate this week by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said extending it would cost the government $100 million this year — and $3.4 billion over 10 years.

Republicans hit back hard against Democrats’ demands to extend the deadline.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, the California Republican who helped write the Medicare drug law, said that since the day it was enacted, Democrats have done nothing but “agitate and create confusion” among seniors.

Republicans say that Democrats are sending mixed signals to seniors instead of joining the federal government’s massive push to get as many of the 43 million elderly people enrolled as possible.

“Democrats continue to do anything to discourage seniors from saving money on their prescription drugs,” said House Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri.

“Instead of working to educate seniors about the savings they can achieve by signing up for this critical benefit, Democrats continue to obstruct,” Mr. Blunt said. “With their votes and with their rhetoric, Democrats insist on standing in the way of relief. Seniors deserve help now, not political tricks designed to confuse and prevent them from getting the immediate assistance they need.”

Amy Fagan contributed to this article.

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