A line drawn wrong

November 06, 2005

Two years ago, when Congress was designing the new Medicare drug benefit that takes effect in January, lawmakers feared drug plans might not be offered in rural areas because private insurers would consider them unprofitable.

Those fears proved wildly off base. Ten separate drug plans are available to Medicare beneficiaries nationwide, and thousands more regional plans have been offered, leaving no part of the country out.

Thus, Senate budget cutters, looking to reduce the deficit without cutting direct benefits to people, figured the $5.4 billion in incentives intended to lure drug plans into rural markets was an obvious target.

Amazingly, the Bush administration has singled out this common-sense cut as a reason to veto the first deficit reduction legislation enacted since 1997 - a $35 billion to $50 billion package likely to meet some of the president's most dearly sought goals.

Our first impulse is to say of the veto threat: Go ahead, make our day.

After the House adds its contribution to this legislation, the package appears likely to be an all-out assault on the poor, sick and disabled that won't even save money because $70 billion more in tax cuts for the wealthy are scheduled to soon follow.

This phony belt-tightening exercise is also the device through which oil companies are expected to finally get the right to drill in Alaska's pristine wildlife refuge.

But genuine deficit reduction is a worthy goal. Perhaps some queasiness among House Republicans about such hard-hearted proposals as kicking 300,000 people off food stamps - as well as opposition to the Alaska drilling - can lead to the crafting of a more responsible measure.

Few items more clearly qualify for chopping from the budget than the $5.4 billion earmarked over the next five years to pay incentives, if necessary, to get private drug plans to offer the Medicare benefit.

The administration argues that the current flurry of interest by drug plans could dissipate in later years. And Mr. Bush is particularly determined to avoid any legislative tinkering with the prescription drug program before it takes effect.

When such caution comes at the expense, though, of families losing food stamps, single mothers denied help collecting child support and poor children forced to make co-payments for health care, it simply can't be defended. Judd Gregg, the Senate Budget Committee chairman whose colleagues eliminated the incentive fund money to avoid harming individuals, called Mr. Bush's veto threat "absurd."

While we wouldn't mind seeing the president finally wield his veto pen on this legislation, we'd prefer a deficit-reduction measure worthy of the name that puts the highest priority on protecting the most vulnerable Americans.

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