AARP endorses Medicare Rx drug bill
Democratic opponents say it will dismantle Medicare
From Steve Turnham
CNN Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush and congressional Republicans kicked off a major lobbying blitz for the $400 billion Medicare-prescription drug bill Monday, buoyed by the endorsement of the nation's largest seniors group.
Democratic opponents attacked the measure as a "Trojan horse" that will serve to dismantle Medicare, while some conservative Republicans lashed out at the "enormous cost" of the proposal, suggesting it could exceed the current price tag.
The key Medicare negotiators, including Democratic Senators John Breaux of Louisiana and Max Baucus of Montana, met at the White House for a photo opportunity with Bush as the president begins a major effort to get the bill through before Congress adjourns. Bush is slated to leave the country Tuesday morning for a state visit to Britain.
The endorsement from AARP, which represents 35 million Americans aged 50 and over and is a muscular lobbying force on Capitol Hill, couldn't have come at a better time for Bush and congressional GOP supporters. The group had initially opposed key provisions of the bill.
"AARP believes the millions of older Americans and their families will be helped by this legislation," Bill Novelli, chief executive of the group, said in a statement that acknowledged the legislation is "far from perfect."
"It will provide substantial relief for those with very high drug costs and will provide modest relief for millions more."
AARP -- now known only by the acronym for the name it scrapped to reach out for members beyond retirees -- plans to lend its considerable weight to push the package through with a three-day ad campaign starting Tuesday on cable television.
Wavering lawmakers also will feel the heat from the White House directly, colleagues who are backing the measure and from other lobbyists.
"It's a tsunami," said one GOP aide of the lobbying effort. "They're pulling out all the stops to get this over the finish line."
Spearheading the Democratic opposition to the bill is the party's leading health care advocate, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, who was a key supporter of the initial proposal.
He spoke out against the bill in its current form Monday, saying the drug benefit is nothing but bait to get lawmakers to accept other elements of the bill that would force Medicare into competition with private plans, force premiums up and spell the end of Medicare in its current form.
He said the bill sets up a "$12 billion slush fund" to subsidize HMOs wishing to offer a private alternative, and that private firms would cherry pick the healthiest seniors, leaving Medicare saddled with the bill for caring for the sickest.
"If they are so efficient, why do they need a handout?" asked Kennedy, his voice rising in anger. "Talk about a fair playing field between the Medicare and the private sector. That's hogwash, that's hogwash."
Dean, Clark oppose
Two of the leading Democratic presidential candidates -- Dr. Howard Dean and Wesley Clark -- also issued statements opposing the revised legislation that is slated for a conference committee vote Tuesday, with Dean calling it a "special interest boondoggle."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, attacked AARP for allowing itself to be "co-opted by Republicans" whose real intent is to kill Medicare.
"The country cannot afford a Trojan horse deal which purports to help America's seniors, but is really a cruel hoax that dismantles Medicare and does not provide seniors an affordable, defined, guaranteed Medicare prescription drug benefit," she said.
The AARP endorsement came as Democrats weigh whether to try to block the bill when it comes to the Senate floor as early as this week. They would need just 41 votes to block the legislation under Senate rules, but it is far from clear whether they have the political will to mount a filibuster against a measure whose central provision, a huge prescription drug benefit, is widely popular.
The Congressional Budget Office must still certify that the bill doesn't blow it's budget of $400 billion. Otherwise, negotiators will have to go back and alter its delicately balanced provisions to meet the cap. But lawmakers have been working with CBO all along to make sure the bill stays on budget.
Some conservatives remained wary, however.
"The enormous cost of this proposal will only hasten Medicare's insolvency, and we'll have to rely on future Congresses to have the political courage that this Congress lacks," said Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake.
"In the end, I think this looks like nothing more than an extremely expensive way to buy votes."