Despite the huge budget deficit, the Bush Administration talks of picking up the tab for rebuilding the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and of spending billions more to deal with the threat of avian flu, but still insists it will not allow any delay in the implementation of the Medicare prescription drug plan to offset these outlays.
Enacted by a two-vote margin in the House in 2003 following an intense lobbying effort by President Bush and the House leadership, the drug plan, scheduled to take affect on January 1, is the first new federal entitlement program since the 1960s. It is expected to add $30 billion to next year’s budget and $8 trillion over the next 75 years.
The conservative House Republican Study Committee, chaired by Rep. Mike Pence (R.-Ind.) has called for delaying the the new entitlement as a way to offset Katrina spending. Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) went further, telling Human Events he would support abolishing the program. But the White House will hear nothing of even a slight reduction.
When I asked Press Secretary Scott McClellan whether discussion of delaying implementation of the drug entitlement was “off the table,” he replied without hesitation: “Absolutely.”
The President’s spokesman went on to say the appropriate government agencies were “making outreach to senior citizens” and that sign-ups for the drug benefits were going to commence “in a matter of weeks.”
McClellan ruled out any delay in the drug bill less than two hours after the President met for breakfast with top Republican congressional leaders to discuss spending cuts in the reconciliation packages now before lawmakers. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.), Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.), House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R.-Ill.) and House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R.-Mo.) attended the breakfast, said McClellen. Both the President and the GOP leaders “are pushing the envelope as much as possible,” he added.
But “pushing the envelope” apparently does not include listening to conservatives on Capitol Hill and delaying the drug bill. When I pressed McClellan whether such a delay was even discussed by lawmakers or the President at breakfast, he told me: “I don’t believe so.”
The House leaders appear to be taking their cue from the White House on this issue. Although Hastert and Blunt were unavailable for comment after the breakfast, I asked Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R.-Va.) if delaying the drug bill was now off the table. “I believe so,” he said.