Shutdown showdown Medicare the issue: GOP right on policy, wrong on politics, in tussle with Clinton.

November 15, 1995

PRESIDENT CLINTON is clobbering the Republicans in the blame game over the partial shutdown of government operations. No way, he says, will he agree that the current $46.10 monthly premium senior citizens pay for Medicare Part B will be increased to $53. He wants the payment lowered to $42.50, as current law provides.

Mr. Clinton's stand is wildly popular with the old folks even though higher Social Security benefits next year would more than outweigh the projected GOP increase in Medicare charges. The president thus wins politically but makes it more difficult to rid the country of huge chronic deficits.

How did the Republicans get themselves in this fix? How did they let the White House narrow the issue to Medicare just as GOP legislators were putting finishing touches on their major tax and spending bill to downsize the federal government fundamentally.

The answer is two-fold. Conservative House Republicans, especially freshmen, were so driven by ideology, so impatient for combat, so intent on exhibiting their readiness to take on Medicare and other popular entitlements, that a confrontation between Congress and the White House could not come fast enough.

The result? They fell into a Democratic trap. Because the slow government computer network needed some six weeks to program in the scheduled cut in Part B premiums, the Republicans decided they had to act now if they wanted to increase premium payments next January. Consequently, they put their Medicare proposal in a temporary spending bill to keep the government running, and instead ran into a Clinton veto leading to the government shutdown.

Conservatives may argue, with good cause, that it makes no sense to lower Medicare premiums at a time when there is a compelling need to have beneficiaries pay their fair share. At present, this has been set at 31.5 percent of the cost of the medical insurance they receive. To maintain that percentage, monthly premiums would have to rise to about $90 by 2002.

Another issue now fiercely partisan is whether Medicare premiums should be means-tested -- with the affluent elderly required to pay more. Last year, as part of his ill-fated health care reform package, the president was all for means-testing. No more. Now the Republicans are carrying that political bombshell.

Higher Medicare premium costs should be an important part of the drive for a balanced budget. Yet Mr. Clinton's tactics could make the program a sacred cow like Social Security. If so, the current closing down of non-essential government operations will have wider consequences than anyone intended.

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