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Drug Battle Reaches Campaign Trail Today

The political battle over prescription drugs will begin in earnest today as both parties seek the advantage in what is likely to be one of the crucial policy struggles of campaign 2004.

Today is the first day retirees can apply for prescription drug cards, which will afford them discounts on medicines under the tenets of the Republican-backed prescription drug benefit that Congress passed in late 2003.

Seeking to sell their proposal to the nation’s seniors, a dependable and crucial voting bloc in the November elections, GOP lawmakers planned to conduct at least 30 workshops centered around enrolling seniors in the new prescription drug plan over the past weekend and through tomorrow.

Those sessions will build on dozens of previous district gatherings and mass mailings Republicans have sent out to familiarize their constituents with the Medicare measure.

The House GOP will continue holding workshops through June 1, when the drug cards themselves will become available.

In addition, the National Republican Congressional Committee has been booking Members onto talk radio programs in targeted districts to talk about the cards and their benefits over the past two weeks and will continue to do so.

Not to be outdone, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (Calif.) office sent out a packet of material to Democratic press secretaries on Capitol Hill late last week with a sample editorial on the topic, a sample press release and a variety of “rhetoric versus reality” fact sheets.

A number of town hall meetings were scheduled over the weekend in Michigan, Kansas and Alabama featuring Democratic Members.

Pelosi will hold a press conference today on Capitol Hill addressing the law; Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), who has taken a lead role on the issue, will hold a similar event in Illinois.

Both sides emphasized that their main goal was to educate senior citizens about the new prescription drug card, but were barely able to contain the politics of the issue that lurks just below the surface.

“This is a confusing bill for seniors,” acknowledged NRCC Communications Director Carl Forti, who quickly pivoted to add:

“Like they attempted to do with Social Security, Democrats are trying scare tactics with senior citizens.”

Given that the Medicare bill has been signed into law, Republicans also suggest that Democrats are doing their constituents a disservice by criticizing the measure and not offering them enough details about how to enroll in the drug program.

Not so, said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Communications Director Kori Bernards.

“This is an education effort so that [seniors] understand what the bill does,” she said. “It is important for them to have information about what the bill does and what it doesn’t do.”

Sensing the potential GOP criticism, Democrats emphasize that they are not seeking to tear the proposal down in total, but rather point out some of its alleged deficiencies.

Among these, according to Democrats, are the fact that 2.7 million seniors will lose their benefits entirely because of the bill and that there are significant gaps in coverage for many elderly citizens.

The attention being paid to the rollout of the program signals the importance both parties place on claiming the issue as their own in the eyes of voters.

Privately, Republicans admit that they must sell the idea to seniors skeptical of the program and the GOP’s ability to solve it.

While polling done since the Medicare bill was enacted last December has generally shown voters reluctant to embrace the measure, some recent data has given Republicans reason to be hopeful.

A survey taken in late March by the GOP firm Andres McKenna Research showed that 54 percent of respondents approved of the new law while 38 percent disapproved, a more favorable result than in past polls.

The survey, which tested 800 registered voters and had a margin of error of 3 percent, found that perceptions of the bill divided along party lines. Among Republicans, the approve-disapprove ratio was 75-19 percent, while among Democrats it was 38-52.

Democrats dismiss such data, noting that even many within Republican ranks have expressed their disapproval with the program.

Conservatives were unhappy when they learned the price tag of the legislation would exceed $500 billion.

“This prescription drug bill is going to be some very serious gum stuck to the shoe of the Republicans,” Pelosi predicted.

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