- The Washington Times - Friday, September 25, 2009

Senior citizens are winning the popularity contest on Capitol Hill these days.

Democrats, pushing for a health care bill in the Senate, are trying to woo seniors with promises of cheap prescription drugs and access to preventive care. Republicans say they’re standing up for seniors by trying to stop proposed cuts to Medicare. And each side accuses the other of being no friend to the nation’s elders.

With votes in the Senate Finance Committee and in the House on Thursday, lawmakers proved that they understand just how pivotal the nation’s 35 million seniors are to the bill’s fate. They have the best record of showing up on Election Day. And so far, they’re the most skeptical of the health care reform plans.

Republican lawmakers quickly targeted a Democrat-led proposal to cut $500 billion from the Medicare program to fund the reform as the Finance Committee slogged through more than 500 proposed amendments to Chairman Max Baucus’ measure in marathon sessions. The minority lawmakers say there is no way to cut that much without impacting patients.

“The proposal now being considered in the Finance Committee is a trillion-dollar experiment that cuts Medicare, raises taxes and threatens the health care options that millions of Americans enjoy, and this is absolutely unacceptable,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Democrats say the cuts would come from waste and inefficiencies in the current system and not hurt patients’ benefits. They say they’re the ones trying to protect seniors and that Republicans — who overwhelmingly rejected the creation of Medicare in 1965 - are no friend to seniors.

“The fact is that ever since a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president created Medicare, Democrats have spent the past 40 years protecting America’s seniors,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said in a marathon of floor speeches by Democrats on the topic Thursday morning.

Democrats have championed themselves as protectors of seniors who are susceptible to manipulative advertising.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently banned companies with Medicare contracts from communicating directly with seniors. Democrats have lauded the measure and have proposed similar restrictions in its latest health care reform proposal. Republicans tried to remove the restriction from the bill, arguing that it was a First Amendment violation.

“Seniors are vulnerable,” Mr. Baucus, Montana Democrat, said in defense of the restriction. “There’s a long history of people — companies and individuals — taking advantage of seniors. … There is no First Amendment right to lie.”

On Thursday, a group of senators threatened to hold up President Obama’s Health and Human Services appointees unless the ban, which it classified as a gag order, was lifted.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they were fighting for seniors again while debating an amendment from Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, that would have required government rebates from pharmaceutical companies who provide drugs to seniors who are enrolled in Medicare and Medicaid and fall into the so-called doughnut hole lack of coverage.

The proposal, which failed, would have saved the government $106 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

But it also would effectively invalidate the highly touted deal between the White House and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, in which the group pledged $80 billion over 10 years to help cover seniors’ drug costs. It was later revealed that in exchange, the White House would not support anything that required any additional costs from the drugmakers.

Mr. Nelson had expected the vote to be close but said he has an agreement from Mr. Reid to allow him to bring the amendment to the floor of the Senate.

“Everybody’s asking me to withdraw it except the senior citizens,” Mr. Nelson told reporters Wednesday evening.

The power of the senior was on display in the House chamber as well Thursday. The House voted overwhelmingly — 406-18 — to prevent Medicare premiums from rising sharply for some seniors.

The importance of the older-person vote has prompted some to skew the reform plans’ impact on the group. The most infamous of those was former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s argument that the health care reform plans would create “death panels” at which seniors’ worth would be judged. Numerous fact-check groups have knocked down such charges.

But seniors remain the leery of the reform plans.

The Gallup Poll found in a recent survey that 44 percent of people older than 55 want their lawmakers to vote against the reform proposals. Only 34 percent of people ages 18 to 34 and 37 percent of people ages 35 to 54 said they felt the same way.

The partisan fighting is expected to escalate Friday when Democrats Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia and Charles E. Schumer of New York say they will make a strong push to include the government insurance option in the proposal.

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