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GOP Presses for Medicare Plan Amidst Democratic Challenges

By Roberto Suro

The White House steps into a major issue in the presidential campaign this week, arguing that Republican plans to improve Medicare prescription drug coverage would fail to reach many low-income seniors and would take far longer to establish than Democratic alternatives, according to administration officials.

Republicans are pressing legislation that closely mirrors a proposal unveiled last week by Texas Gov. George W. Bush. John D. Podesta, the White House chief of staff, strongly suggested Sunday that the administration would prefer to scuttle the GOP plan and keep the issue alive on the campaign trail.

“When people look at what is in that [GOP] plan, they’re going to find two-thirds of Medicare recipients are left out, 50 percent of the people without drug coverage are left out,” Podesta said during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.”

President Clinton is expected to enter the fray Tuesday when he meets with congressional leaders to discuss matters Congress is expected to address before it adjourns next month, administration officials said.

Like Bush’s proposal, a bill sponsored by Sen. William V. Roth Jr., R-Del., would initially deliver benefits through programs administered by the states. By contrast, Democrats propose providing drug coverage through Medicare. The Republican plans would limit participation to seniors who met certain income limits while Vice President Gore and congressional Democrats favor extending the benefits to everyone eligible for Medicare.

A top Bush ally, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, said the campaign is a better place than Capitol Hill to settle the issue. “If anybody were to ask my opinion,” Ridge said on the Fox interview show, “I think we ought to let the candidates lay out their proposals and let the voters decide.”

Bush’s plan would funnel benefits through the states for four years while a more extensive reform of Medicare was put in place. By contrast, Gore would have Medicare administer benefits from the outset.