Washington will pause this week from warring over President Obama's five-year-old healthcare law to commemorate a major milestone for the federal government's two big health insurance programs.

Medicare and Medicaid hover in the background of just about every big fiscal fight in Washington, as they now cover one in three Americans, consume nearly one-fourth of the federal budget and constitute by far the country's largest healthcare payer.

Today, they eat up federal dollars equal to 4.6 percent of GDP.

Thursday marks 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson signed the health coverage programs for the elderly, disabled and poor into law — and they will take center stage with commemorative events around Washington, including a Wednesday event hosted by Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell at her agency's headquarters.

While Medicare and Medicaid spark plenty of partisan tension, they have grown so dramatically over the last five decades— and provided so many Americans with health coverage — that it's virtually impossible for even the most conservative politician not to recognize the impact they have had on the country's safety net.

Enrollment has exploded over the last few decades, particularly in Medicaid, which now covers about 20 percent of Americans, up from 8 percent in 1985. Medicare enrollment has grown more steadily but still faster than population growth, and now covers about 16 percent of the country.

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