GOP's political inoculation

Robert Novak
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Posted: Nov 20, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's departure this week for a less-than-friendly reception in Britain while his most important piece of domestic legislation is in jeopardy looks like the wrong trip to the wrong place at the wrong time. The House Republican leadership trying to pass a prescription drug subsidy is not happy about his absence. But many rank-and-file GOP lawmakers will be delighted if the bill sinks while the president is away.

Odds are that Medicare legislation, after nearly four months in a Senate-House conference following passage by both houses, will not sink. It is intended to inoculate Bush's re-election campaign from charges he has no compassion for senior citizens. Whether it actually achieves that end, the strategy worries many Republicans.

The inoculation's side effects could depress the Republican political base in next year's election with disastrous consequences for the president. Apart from any political downside, the first fully Republican government -- presidency, Senate and House -- in 38 years is building a major addition to the welfare state. The prescription drug subsidy will be the first major new federal entitlement since Medicare in 1965.

The danger of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy leading a lethal filibuster was diminished with a legislative sleight of hand that is standard practice on Capitol Hill. The bill's "premium support" provision -- attempting to graft free market competition onto this 1965 government program -- is anathema to Kennedy and friends. So, the Senate-House conference miniaturized premium support into a six-region pilot project, an effective death sentence for privatization.

That won support for the bill from two key Senate Finance Committee Democrats: Sens. Max Baucus of Montana and John Breaux of Louisiana. The powerful American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) soon followed. Liberal contempt for a pilot project was sounded by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. Proposing to limit the contaminating impact of private enterprise to Republican "red" states of 2000, Clinton added: "Let them experiment on people who voted for them."

Rep. Bill Thomas, the House Ways and Means Committee chairman and a Medicare conferee who knows more about the subject than anybody else in Congress, was infuriated. He stormed out of the session and said he was driving to the airport to fly home to California. He cooled off, however, and amended the pilot project.

The agreement reached last Saturday, however, did not satisfy House conservatives such as Rep. Mike Pence, a second-term member from Indiana who is regarded highly enough by the party leadership to be named a deputy whip. When Pence heard the news at the Restoration Weekend attended by conservatives at The Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla., he informed House Majority Leader Tom DeLay he could not vote for this bill. DeLay was not happy.

DeLay, arguably the single most powerful House member, had told colleagues that the prescription drug subsidy was the price for market reform of Medicare. Now, in the opinion of Pence, Rep. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and other conservatives, DeLay has delivered the subsidy but not reform. The tough Texas conservative, in trying to fix Medicare, has become one of its bigger fans -- sounding like Col. Nicholson building the bridge in "The Bridge on the River Kwai."

"A great opportunity for the Republican Party has been lost," Pence told me. "We should not be the party of entitlements." Scores of Pence's colleagues agree with him, but only 19 voted against the bill in June and fewer will do so this time. Many might contemplate defying George W. Bush, but breaking with Tom DeLay would be more painful. The AARP and the pharmaceutical industry have joined arms supporting this bill. Bush senior adviser Karl Rove, the author of the inoculation theory, assembled private lobbyists late Monday in Room 450 of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for a pep rally.

But will the Republican inoculation turn out to be an infection? Republican seniors who now get their prescription drugs through supplementary private programs will not be happy about being driven into Medicare. The new bill's "means testing" turns out to be a tax increase for upper income senior Americans. Democrats who are raging over this bill sound like they are protesting being thrown into the briar patch.