President Bush warned Congress yesterday not to reopen the landmark Medicare legislation that he pushed through in his first term and threatened to veto any measures scaling back its benefits even as new financial forecasts show the cost soaring over the next decade.
"I signed Medicare reform proudly, and any attempt to limit the choices of our seniors and to take away their prescription drug coverage under Medicare will meet my veto," Bush said at a ceremony marking the installation of Mike Leavitt as his new secretary of health and human services.
For Bush, the forceful statement represented a rare invocation of the presidential veto as a weapon in a legislative fight with a Republican Congress. Through more than four years in the White House, Bush has never vetoed any bill. The unyielding language also signaled his desire to quickly quash any renewed debate over Medicare when he is traveling around the country trying to gather public support for his plan to dramatically change Social Security.
The Medicare legislation reemerged as a point of debate in Washington this week when new projections indicated a far bigger 10-year price tag for the prescription drug benefit than the $400 billion originally predicted by supporters during the 2003 enactment of the bill or the $534 billion later estimated by the government. The White House disclosed this week that the cost over the first decade would reach as high as $1.2 trillion, although it emphasized that various savings would bring that down to $724 billion.
The revised cost estimates sent a ripple of shock across Capitol Hill among Democrats and Republicans who worried that the government has saddled itself with another mushrooming obligation that will only exacerbate deficits in the future. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) favors reexamining the program, and several other Republicans as well as some Democrats called for reopening the bill.
While Democrats used the shifting numbers to attack White House credibility, Bush aides said the higher estimates reflected a rolling 10-year budget window encompassing later years when the program is fully in place. The White House accused Democrats of playing politics, while Bush aides publicly ignored the fact that Republicans had expressed concerns as well.
"You heard from members of the Democratic Party earlier this week who really were trying to move forward on an attempt to undermine the reforms that we put in place," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan. "We're not going to let that happen."
But Democrats said the threatened veto was an effort to forestall legislation permitting the reimportation of U.S.-approved prescription drugs from foreign countries at lower costs for consumers.
"Make no mistake, the president's blanket veto threat is designed to protect only special interests -- the big drug companies and HMOs his flawed bill gave billions to in the new law," Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement. "This is an attempt by the president to stop the bipartisan groundswell for drug reimportation and price negotiation, and just the latest example of the Republican Party putting special interests ahead of the American people."
Several congressional Republican leaders rallied behind the president while repeating their concerns about the spiraling costs.
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said the Republican leadership is giving "no consideration" to curtailing the Medicare prescription benefit and said he believes the cost estimates are too high and do not account for savings that are almost certain to occur. "The worst thing we could do now is take away this important benefit and kick the problem down the road like too many presidents and too many Congresses did before," he said.
House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) said he is "not happy with the projection of a spending level beyond what we had anticipated" but said he does not think it makes sense to change a program that has not even really begun. "I support the president on this," Dreier said. "We should not reverse what we worked so hard to put in place."
Bush used the occasion of Leavitt's ceremonial swearing-in to issue a full-throated defense of the Medicare program, a centerpiece of his first-term domestic achievements that he pushed through despite considerable opposition in Congress, even within his own party. By 2014, the program will provide prescription coverage for more than 41 million seniors at an annual cost of $107 billion, according to the latest estimates.
"This law is a landmark achievement in American health care, and millions of older Americans are already benefiting from its reforms," Bush said in the Great Hall of the Health and Human Services Department headquarters with Leavitt at his side. Bush praised the program for covering preventive medicine and giving seniors more control over their health care choices.
He did not directly address this week's renewal of the cost controversy, but he did implicitly acknowledge the brewing pressure to take another look at the program. "Putting these reforms in action will be challenging," Bush said. He added, "We all know the alternative to reform: a Medicare system that offers outdated benefits and imposes needless costs. For decades, we promised America's seniors that we can do better and we finally did. Now we must keep our word."