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Democrats Push for a Medicare Special Counsel

House and Senate Democrats will likely ask Attorney General John Ashcroft as early as mid-April to appoint a special counsel to investigate any possible criminal behavior in the Bush administration’s handling of last year’s Medicare prescription drug law.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said Democrats would specifically want any Justice Department-appointed special counsel to look into whether criminal laws were violated in an alleged attempt by unnamed House Republicans to bribe Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) to change his vote on the Medicare bill — as well as into any criminality of an alleged threat to fire a Medicare official over the release of costs estimates for the bill.

“I think a special counsel could help clarify what happened,” added Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

However, Lautenberg cautioned that Democrats want to make sure before they ask for the unusual step of appointing a special prosecutor that enough public momentum is behind them to force Ashcroft’s hand.

“We’ve got to make sure that we develop support on our side,” said Lautenberg, who noted he was still feeling out members of the House and Senate Democratic caucuses on the idea. “I want to confer a bit with my colleagues.”

Indeed, one knowledgeable House Democratic aide said Democrats in that chamber do not want to move too quickly because they fear the call for a special counsel would be seen as only a political move.

“I don’t think my bosses want to call for an independent counsel as a bluff,” said the House Democratic aide. “Getting all of our ducks in a row is important. If we do it too soon it will gum up all these other investigations.”

But Republicans, including a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), shrugged off suggests that the controversy over the Medicare law needed a special counsel to resolve it.

“I think he feels, at least for the CMS estimate, that’s a matter for the administration to resolve,” said Amy Call. “He does think it’s political. It’s partisan on their part.”

Investigations on various allegations of government misdeeds related to the Medicare law are already being conducted by the General Accounting Office, the FBI, the Health and Human Services Department’s inspector general and the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

In addition, Democrats in both chambers have called for the Justice Department to initiate a criminal probe. But so far Justice officials have not responded to the inquiry and calls to the department were not returned by press time Tuesday.

Democrats generally acknowledged that they need the HHS inspector general’s report to bolster their contention that former Bush official Tom Scully violated criminal laws barring the use of threats to obstruct or impede a Congressional inquiry when he threatened to fire Medicare chief actuary Rick Foster if he shared his higher costs estimates of the Medicare bill with Members. Scully has denied any wrongdoing.

The FBI and the House ethics committee are already looking into Smith’s allegations that some Republicans offered to steer $100,000 in campaign contributions to his son’s Congressional campaign if he voted for the Medicare bill. Smith, who still voted against the measure, is retiring at the end of this Congress.

“I think it helps exert the pressure to get some significant response,” said Lautenberg of needing the ongoing investigations to wrap up before the call for a special counsel.

Though it would not be part of the purview of any special counsel, GAO is looking at whether HHS video news releases touting the new Medicare law violate a federal law prohibiting government funds for “publicity or propaganda.”

Meanwhile, House Ways and Means ranking member Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) successfully forced Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) to hold another hearing Thursday on whether Foster’s Medicare prescription drug cost estimates were improperly withheld from Congress.

Foster has alleged that he was told not to tell Members that his $534 billion estimate was $139 billion more than the estimate prepared by the Congressional Budget Office, Congress’ independent scorekeeper.

By using a little-known rule that allows the minority party to request that more witnesses be called, Rangel was able to force Thomas to schedule a follow-up to last week’s hearing in which Foster testified.

The invited witnesses are members of the administration who Rangel believes may have had a direct hand in keeping the higher Medicare cost estimate from Congress.

The list includes Scully, White House health aide Doug Badger and former Scully deputy Jeff Flick.

A Rangel spokesman said it was unclear whether any of the invited witnesses would show up.

Daschle also said Tuesday that Democrats would be putting increasing pressure on the Republican majority to hold Senate hearings on all of the Medicare allegations.

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