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.