Clinton takes fight to Hill President pushes plan to let early retirees qualify for Medicare

GOP leaders call it DOA

His approval rating is 63% to 67% after Willey's TV interview

March 18, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A besieged President Clinton journeyed to Capitol Hill yesterday to join congressional Democrats in formally proposing that Medicare coverage be extended to early retirees and laid-off workers as young as 55.

The proposal -- whose prospects are considered dim -- was unveiled by Clinton in happier times in January, before allegations surfaced of a sexual relationship between him and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

But if the swirling sex-and-perjury scandal has diminished Clinton's legislative and political authority, it was not in evidence yesterday as he trotted out one of the most ambitious legislative proposals of the 1998 election year.

Polls this week have Clinton's approval ratings remaining high -- between 63 percent and 67 percent -- even after Kathleen Willey's nationally televised allegation Sunday night that the president tried to force himself on her sexually outside the Oval ,, Office.

Democrats are showing few signs of abandoning their president. The scandal engulfing the White House may have put them in a difficult position, but they still support Clinton's legislative agenda and view him as their only hope for its success.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts went so far yesterday as to introduce Clinton to his audience as "the Medicare president, William Jefferson Clinton."

A federal budget approaching balance has allowed Democrats to again move toward expanding the federal government's role in such areas as education and health care, and Clinton is ready to oblige.

The hugely popular Medicare program is particularly inviting. In the past, Clinton and the Democrats have successfully portrayed themselves as the guardians of Medicare, intent on warding off Republican efforts to shrink the program.

"We should not let a single day go by when Americans have problems that we can remedy," Clinton told the partisan faithful in a House office building.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan described the proposal as not only good policy but good politics.

"The president has come forward with a very fine proposal that deserves bipartisan support and overwhelming support," said the New York Democrat, a respected social-policy expert whose imprimatur on the Medicare bill gives it instant credibility with many in Congress.

Steep premium

The proposal would allow early retirees ages 62 to 65 to buy into Medicare, the government-financed health insurance program for the elderly. The early retirees would pay a fairly steep premium -- about $300 a month -- and would continue to pay into Medicare after age 65 to defray the costs of the Medicare expansion.

The proposal also would open the system to workers ages 55 to 61 who had lost their jobs because of downsizing, plant closures, or business relocations.

Such dislocated workers would pay about $400 a month in premiums. Workers who retire early, only to find that their former employers have cut off their health insurance, would also be eligible for Medicare under the Democratic proposal.

The high premiums ensure that the expansion would pay for itself, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. But the premiums also mean that only a fraction of the possible beneficiaries could take advantage of the offer.

Of the 21 million Americans between ages 55 and 64, budget analysts expect that 300,000 to 400,000 people would buy into the plan. In Maryland, 85,800 people between 55 and 65 are uninsured or are paying up to $1,000 a month for private health insurance, according to a White House study.

Despite its limited scope, the proposal could face insurmountable hurdles. Republicans quickly dismissed it yesterday as dead on arrival.

Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho, who heads the Republican Policy Committee, said the high premiums would create "tremendous pressure" on Congress to subsidize beneficiaries who could not afford the costs.

Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, a member of the Republican leadership, predicted that companies would begin dumping health coverage for early retirees and elderly workers, expecting the federal government to take up the slack.

'Not going anywhere'

"It's not going anywhere," Nickles flatly declared, calling the proposal "grossly irresponsible."

For Democrats, the proposal's ultimate fate may be beside the point. The plan gives them a desirable election-year issue

involving the nation's fastest-growing age group, Americans ages 55 to 65.

It allows Democrats to use one of their favorite programs to hammer Republicans, as Kennedy did when he declared: "The real burden of Medicare is from Republicans who never liked it and who would love to repeal it."

And it gives Democrats the chance to show that they continue to press an agenda that is appealing to women, even as Clinton's sexual troubles may be starting to threaten his standing with women's groups.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, an outspoken Connecticut Democrat, underlined that point when she took to task Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League, and Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, for doubting Clinton's credibility on the Willey matter.

DeLauro noted that Clinton had signed legislation guaranteeing unpaid leave to workers with family medical problems and is fighting Republican-backed legislation that would deny family planning money to international groups that lobby for liberalized abortion laws overseas.

"They have a right to their opinions," DeLauro said, "but Kate Michelman and Patricia Ireland would also be the first to say there would not be family and medical leave without the president, and we would not be having this debate about international family planning without the president."

Pub Date: 3/18/98

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