Bush prescription drug plan draws fire from both parties

January 25, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Although he won't officially roll it out until Tuesday, President Bush's ambitious proposal to offer senior citizens subsidized prescription drugs is already drawing heavy fire from within his own party and from Democrats.

The proposal, which administration officials say is still being fine-tuned for the president's State of the Union address Tuesday night, would provide prescription drug benefits only to seniors who leave the traditional fee-for-service Medicare program and enroll with private health insurers.

Republican strategists inside and outside Congress, conferring by phone yesterday, worried that the plan was a political land mine that could hurt Republicans in the 2004 election because, while a new prescription-drug subsidy is widely popular, changing the basic structure of Medicare is not.

Advocates of the plan think Medicare's financial footing would improve significantly by luring the elderly to privately run plans. But those who stay in the traditional Medicare program wouldn't have access to the new drug benefits under current versions of the proposal.

"The feeling is that there really isn't a resonance in the country out there for this," said one participant in the discussion, who asked to remain anonymous.

The White House seemed undaunted by the possibility of a tough fight.

"The president has never shied away from an ambitious agenda," a senior administration official said on condition he not be identified. "It's not his governing style to kick an issue down the road. This [prescription drug issue] has been something that too many Congresses have debated but not resolved."

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