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AARP Endorses Medicare Bill Covering Prescription Benefits

By Robert Pear and Robin Toner

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

AARP, the largest and most influential organization of older Americans, threw its weight on Monday behind a bill that offers drug benefits to the elderly as part of the biggest transformation of Medicare in its 38-year history.

President Bush and Republican leaders in Congress stepped up their efforts to win votes for the legislation, which would give private health insurance companies a huge new role in Medicare. AARP’s endorsement, long coveted by Republicans in Congress, was considered a critical step in the drive for passage of the legislation this year.

The endorsement provides a seal of approval from an organization with 35 million members -- and political cover for lawmakers against Democrat charges that the bill would undermine the government insurance program for the elderly and disabled. The organization will support the bill with $7 million worth of newspaper and television advertising this week, and officials said they were prepared spend more.

Still, some Democrats, led by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, escalated their attacks on the legislation. Kennedy called it a dangerous attempt to “privatize” Medicare, “using our seniors as guinea pigs.” Many Senate Democrats were clearly torn over the bill, which delivers a prescription drug benefit the party has sought for many years but would also, many argue, undermine the program over the long term.

Kennedy stopped short of threatening a filibuster to block the bill, which has the support of some moderate and conservative Democrats; the party was expected to discuss that question in a caucus on Tuesday. But leading Republican strategists said they did not expect a filibuster because, they asserted, the political fallout for the Democrats from blocking a vote would be so great.

After Kennedy’s scathing remarks on Monday, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the assistant Republican leader, defended the legislation on the Senate floor. “This is a good deal for America’s seniors,” he said. “We’ll have all of this unless the Senate obstructs it.”

Republican spokesmen expressed confidence that they could sell the plan to their own ranks, including conservatives long troubled by such a large expansion of an entitlement program. “We’re very upbeat,” said John P. Feehery, spokesman for Dennis Hastert, speaker of the House.

The sweeping legislation, estimated to cost $400 billion over 10 years, offers outpatient drug coverage for the first time to the 40 million Medicare beneficiaries.

But the biggest issue in the coming battle is not the drug benefits. In the complicated compromise that produced the legislation, Republicans insisted on many provisions aimed at injecting market forces and more competition into Medicare.