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Tentative deal reached on Medicare

From Jonathan Karl
CNN Washington Bureau

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Prescription drug benefits

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Congressional negotiators have reached a tentative agreement on a $400 billion plan to help Medicare recipients pay for prescription drugs, senators involved in the negotiations said Wednesday.

"We have a tentative agreement that I can be supportive of," said Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, one of only two Democrats involved in the negotiations. The other Democrat, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, had no comment.

Sources involved in the negotiations said the AARP -- the 35 million-member organization of people over age 50 -- was involved in crafting the deal and was expected to endorse it if both Breaux and Baucus support the plan.

But House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, warned that some details still need to be worked out.

"Obviously, we have to get something that can pass in the Senate that at the same time can pass in the House," Hastert said.

"There's a very narrow line. We're trying to get an agreement that's bipartisan, that's also very difficult."

Democratic leaders denounced the agreement even before it was announced.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said the deal "means the end of Medicare as we've known it for all these 40 years."

But sources on Capitol Hill said if Baucus, Breaux and the AARP all come on board to support the deal, it would be hard for Democrats to make that case.

The deal includes a "demonstration project" in which Medicare would compete with private insurance companies in four cities or one region of the country, to be chosen by the secretary of health and human services, according to sources involved in the negotiations.

Other controversial provisions include efforts to control the cost of Medicare and a "means test" that would force wealthy seniors to pay more for Medicare.

Democrats object to the proposal to put Medicare in competition with private insurers, and Daschle said most were likely to vigorously oppose the plan.

Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts called the plan an "untried, untested and unworkable" program "that would be the demise of the system as we know it."

"We cannot accept a proposal that is going to threaten to destroy the Medicare system," he said.

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