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Hill Readies For Drug War

Bush Turns Up Heat on Medicare

Preparing for a pitched battle over Medicare reform, the White House has armed Senate and House Republicans with a videotape from President Bush urging constituents to pressure Congress to overhaul the massive health care program this year.

Having Bush deliver this personal plea exemplifies the importance of the debate over reforming Medicare and adding a drug benefit to the program, with both parties looking to gain ownership of the health care issue before the 2004 elections.

“Politically, next to the economy I can’t think of an issue that is more important,” said one GOP leadership aide.

Overhauling Medicare is just one of several flashpoint issues Congress plans to address in the run-up to the Fourth of July recess.

In addition to addressing the Medicare issue, the House is poised to approve legislation outlawing so-called “partial birth” abortions, sending it to the White House for President Bush’s signature in what would be the first new major federal restriction placed on access to abortion in 30 years. The Senate approved the measure earlier this year.

In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans remain at loggerheads over a handful of nominees to the federal circuit courts and one district court, an internal battle that will explode onto the national scene should a vacancy occur on the Supreme Court this summer.

More immediately, the Senate will try to reach an agreement on energy legislation this week, while keeping an eye on the sluggish economy.

“With the signing of the tax cut, the president is demonstrating a commitment to getting our economy fully back on its feet,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) wrote in an e-mail to supporters last week. “That’s our focus. And we’re all going to keep working at it.

“And I need your support of improved Medicare which I will take to the floor in two weeks,” Frist added.

While the White House and leading Congressional Republicans might arrive at different ideas on how to reform Medicare, GOP Members believe the politically popular president will be their biggest asset in the debate. Republicans are being urged by their leaders to show the Bush tape at town hall gatherings and meetings with seniors in their home states and districts to help demonstrate the GOP’s willingness to approve a plan this year.

“My goal is to give seniors more choices and better benefits under Medicare including a long-awaited prescription drug benefit,” Bush says in the video, generically titled, “A Message from the President.”

Bush provides a broad outline of his expectations for Medicare reform in the video, which runs just under two minutes and shows the president sitting at a desk with an American flag behind him.

“Those who like the current Medicare system should be able to stay in it and also receive help with prescription drug costs,” the president says, according to a copy of the tape viewed by Roll Call. “Those who want better coverage should have access to an enhanced fee-for-service Medicare program similar to the health care coverage available to every federal employee including every Member of Congress. Seniors should have the same type of choices their Representatives in Washington do.”

A senior Senate Democratic aide scoffed when told of the Bush tape.

“This isn’t a good way to start off bipartisan negotiations,” the aide said. “By utilizing such a partisan device they are sending a strong signal they are not interested in working with Democrats on this issue.”

For several months, both parties have quietly been strategizing about how to approach the Medicare reform issue in anticipation of the upcoming floor battles. With control of the White House and Congress at stake in 2004, leaders of both parties are keenly aware that health care will be an integral part of their respective domestic political platforms. Democrats have spent the past two election cycles touting prescription drug coverage through a Medicare entitlement as a potential political silver bullet.

Polls have shown that delivering quality health care and a prescription drug plan is a top priority for voters, a fact not lost on the six Democratic Members seeking their party’s presidential nomination. Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) was the first Member to release a sweeping health care plan, and others such as Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) have already outlined their own proposals. Sens. John Edwards (N.C.), Bob Graham (Fla.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.) will release full details of their respective plans later this year.

Graham and Kerry are expected to use their seats on the Finance Committee to wade into the Medicare debate in the coming weeks as the panel works to deliver a bill.

“This is an issue of top concern to Senator Graham,” said Jill Greenberg, a spokeswoman for the Florida Democrat. “It has been in the past and will continue to be.”

A senior House GOP aide said leadership’s near-term focus will be on approving the ban on partial-birth abortions, a move that is sure to help mollify the socially conservative base that has been pushing this measure since the mid-1990s. After passing that this week, the House expects to take up a “comp time” bill that would allow more flexibility for workers to opt to take leave, instead of wages, for overtime — a measure that Big Labor has fought strenuously in the past.

Later this month the House will focus on beginning to pass the 13 must-do appropriations bills, while House and Senate leaders still are negotiating over the allocation limits for each of the individual subcommittees.

In a rare move toward bicameral comity, House Appropriations Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.) and Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) are working to strike a deal that would set the same spending limit in the House and Senate for each of the 13 spending bills. Such a deal would make the House-Senate conferences on appropriations much easier, with each side at least starting from the same spending cap.

Intermixed within the battles over energy, appropriations and health care, judicial nominations will continue to cloud the atmosphere in the Senate chamber. Democrats are already maintaining two filibusters — of circuit court nominees Miguel Estrada and Priscilla Owen — and must soon decide whether to block the nominations of Los Angeles Judge Carolyn Kuhl and J. Leon Holmes of Arkansas. Kuhl is opposed by both home-state Senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, in her nomination to a circuit court, while Holmes’ controversial writings and comments have given pause to moderates such as Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).

On Thursday, the Rules and Administration Committee will review a series of proposals to alter the judicial nomination process, which could lay the groundwork for eliminating filibusters on judges. Liberal activists, who are busy preparing for the fight over potential Supreme Court vacancies, say they are ready to resist on several fronts and expect Democrats to do the same.

“I think they’re going to mount the filibuster,” Nan Aaron, head of the Alliance for Justice, predicted of Kuhl’s bid. “And I think they’re going to be successful.”

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