Tuesday, August 5, 2003

Some conservative lawmakers say they expect support for the Medicare prescription drug legislation currently in House-Senate conference will crumble over the August recess, allowing them to push key changes when Congress returns in the fall.

“It is my fondest hope that the American people will let their elected representatives know what they think of a massive new entitlement,” said Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican who voted against the House Medicare prescription drug bill.

He says the program will be too costly in the long run. Congress is “really giving the American people time to think about it. And that’s a good thing for those of us who’d like to see a much more limited, much more fiscally responsible plan,” he said.

“I hope … members will be told that the American people don’t want either bill,” said Sen. Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican who voted against the Senate bill.

Mr. Lott said that with support waning, lawmakers could “go back to the beginning” and create a prescription drug benefit targeted only to seniors who need it most, instead of promising drug coverage to all retirees.

Mr. Pence predicted that when Congress returns after Labor Day, the 19 House Republicans who voted against the House Medicare drug bill, “will have company.” He and other conservatives say constituents are unhappy when they learn the government is inadequately reforming Medicare while burdening it with a massive new drug entitlement program that young people will end up paying for down the line.

Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, said he has been telling young people to “get angry,” and he agreed public support will decline during August if conservative talk radio and others continue to criticize the legislation.

But some Senate Democrats predicted the opposite public reaction. They agreed support for the legislation will likely decline over August, but predicted seniors will demand heftier drug benefits in the final bill and will reject Republican attempts to reform or change the Medicare they love.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, said he is also glad negotiators left the bills to languish over the recess.

“August is our friend; time is our friend,” he said, adding that Democrats hopefully can use public outcry to move the bill in their direction.

Several House and Senate conservatives met before the House left town to discuss how they can influence the House-Senate conference charged with crafting a final bill.

“There’s a fear that the prescription drug bill will lean more towards moderate Republicans and Democrats,” said Rep. Steve Buyer, an Indiana Republican who attended that meeting along with Mr. Pence and Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican. None of those three are members of the Medicare conference committee.

Some conservatives predicted the legislation would be blocked.

Mr. Flake said with House conservatives trying to pull the final bill in one direction and Senate Democrats trying to pull it in the opposite direction, “hopefully we hit an impasse and delay it.” President Bush could then target the drug benefit only to those who need it, he said.

Mr. Ensign said the main purpose of the conservatives’ House-Senate meeting was to discuss strategies, and to let leaders know they have major concerns.

“We want to make sure that we are not ignored in the process, because you’re going to need our votes,” he said.

Conservatives want to create more competition between private health plans and traditional Medicare, including keeping a House provision that would require direct competition starting in 2010. They want means-testing in the final bill, forcing wealthier seniors to pay more of their health care costs, and they want to create health savings accounts for individuals.

Senate Democrats say conservatives are trying to kill Medicare by forcing people into private sector insurance, and they oppose any provision in the final bill they think would do so, including the 2010 competition. They want the new drug benefit to be available to all seniors and insist there must be a government-run drug benefit in case private plans do not enter an area of the country. They also oppose including health savings accounts in the final bill.

Some conservatives, like Medicare conferee Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, are hopeful they can influence the conference to include their suggestions.

Others are not as hopeful. Mr. Pence pointed to a meeting July 23 between the White House and Medicare conferees, in which the key word was bipartisanship.

“That was the word that came out of the White House — bipartisanship — which means a Democrat bill,” Mr. Pence said. “We’ve been to bipartisanship before and it looks exactly like Democrats.”

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