CRAWFORD, Texas – President Bush, prepared to declare victory on an issue dear to millions of older Americans, said Saturday that lawmakers should hurry to complete the job of adding coverage for prescription drugs to the government's Medicare (search) health plan.
The House and Senate early Friday approved differing legislation that would offer the first subsidies in the program's 38-year history for prescription medication, give people enrolled in Medicare more choices of health plans and benefits and introduce competition from private health insurance to hold down Medicare costs.
Negotiators from the two houses now face the thorny task of writing a compromise bill that melds both versions and is acceptable to a majority of lawmakers in each chamber.
Bush, who is spending the weekend at his ranch between fund-raising trips to California and Florida on Friday and Monday, taped his weekly radio address on the topic before he arrived here.
The president papered over the sometimes-significant differences between the bills — and from his own original Medicare proposal — to boast that Congress had accepted his central demand: that Medicare begin to incorporate the notion of choice.
He noted both bills also included another piece of his plan: the offer of a government-backed discount drug card that offers some savings before the drug subsidies take effect in 2006.
"Seniors who want to stay in the current Medicare system will have that option, plus a new prescription drug benefit," Bush said. "Seniors who want enhanced benefits, such as coverage for preventive care and a cap on out-of-pocket costs, will have that choice, as well. Seniors who like the affordability of managed-care plans will be able to enroll in such plans."
The bills only partially resemble Bush's original Medicare-overhaul proposals. He initially proposed offering different levels of drug benefits to people who chose to enroll in private plans, but both measures make no such differentiation.
Still, the White House has made it clear that the president is ready to sign virtually anything that emerges from the conference committee.
Indeed, aides have declined to say which bill Bush prefers, and he made no demands in his address about what he'd like to see conferees produce. Instead, he merely told lawmakers to get busy crafting their compromise — not to waste time getting a bill to his desk for him to sign.
The issues House and Senate negotiators must resolve range from the details of a prescription drug benefit to a dispute over lower-cost generic drugs to proposed free-market measures.
"This is an issue of vital importance to senior citizens all across our country. They have waited years for a modern Medicare system and they should not have to wait any longer," Bush said. "I urge members to seize this opportunity to achieve a great and compassionate goal."
The White House would love to score points on prescription drug coverage, long a demand of the nation's politically powerful older population and a program one pushed by Democrats.
Seeking to tie success directly to Bush's efforts, aides announced that he called wavering lawmakers Thursday night ahead of the scant, 216-215 approval vote in the Republican-run House. Several times in recent weeks, he also summoned groups of lawmakers for meetings on the subject.
The campaign continues Monday, when Bush will include a Medicare event with older Hispanics at a community center in the Little Havana (search) section of Miami into a day otherwise devoted to political fund raising in Florida.
"The president will constantly push for this (drug bill) because nothing is set in stone," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said in announcing the event. "No one should take this granted. It requires ongoing work and ongoing effort."
In the Democrat's weekly radio address Saturday, Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (search) of Tennessee stressed his party's view that the Republican plan would jeopardize Medicare by forcing it to compete with private health plans.
Democrats are upset that, beginning in 2010, the legislation would set premiums for older people based on each plan's costs. They fear is that privately run managed-care programs will be cheaper than Medicare, where patients can see any doctor, and it will cost more to stay in the program.