WASHINGTON (AP) -- Republicans and Democrats are jousting over prescription drug benefits for Medicare recipients, a key campaign issue, as the congressional session nears an end and elections approach.
"Sadly, it has proved very difficult to get a bipartisan compromise," on the issue, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said in a letter being sent to President Clinton on Monday.
Addressing an issue that customarily favors Democrats, the Republican leaders called for immediate benefits for the low-income elderly, as well as legislation to allow importation of cheaper drugs from Canada and elsewhere.
"We hope that partisan bickering would not prevent us from helping those who need it most now," they wrote in their letter, a copy of which was obtained in advance. They also recommended putting aside up to $40 billion to provide drug coverage to all seniors in future legislation.
But even before their letter was dispatched, the White House sounded unimpressed, and the leader of House Democrats scornful.
"This sounds like the Republican leadership is giving up on the idea of a real prescription drug benefit this year. The president is not giving up," said White House aide Joel Johnson.
And Laura Nichols, an aide to House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, said the GOP letter "sounds like a desperate attempt on the eve of the election for the Republicans to look like they're on the right side of the issue. Until the Republicans agree to deliver a prescription drug benefit through Medicare, they are nibbling around the edges of the problem."
With elections only six weeks away, polling indicates the prescription drug issue is an important one, particularly in the battleground states of the Midwest, and that Democrats are favored over Republicans.
An ABC News-Washington Post poll after the summer political conventions gave Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee, an 18-point advantage over Republican rival George W. Bush on the issue.
The issue is important in congressional races, as well. House Republicans received polling information after their summer break that said they needed to show the public they had a plan to help the neediest seniors, said GOP sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Clinton, Gore and most Democrats favor legislation to create a new prescription drug benefit under Medicare, available to all recipients who agree to pay for it, with subsidies for the less well off.
Republicans generally reject that approach. In the House, the leadership earlier this year pushed through an alternative that relies on subsidies to the pharmaceutical industry, in hopes companies will offer prescription drug coverage to Medicare recipients. Low-income seniors would receive help under the GOP approach, as well.
Additional proposals are circulating in the Senate. One, by Finance Committee Chairman William Roth, R-Del., would help the elderly poor.
Republican aides said GOP leaders would take steps in the coming week to stress their proposal for immediate help for low-income seniors, an idea proposed by Bush in his prescription medicine plan.
Democrats said Gore would campaign on the issue in the coming week, and lawmakers would seek to press Hastert to permit passage of legislation covering all elderly people.
In their letter, the GOP leaders outlined five proposals they said Congress and the White House should agree to enact before lawmakers adjourn for the elections next month:
--Creation of a Medicare "lock box" to make sure Medicare payroll tax receipts are not diverted to other government programs.
--Swift passage of prescription drug legislation to help low-income seniors "who currently have to choose between prescription drugs and food."
--A set-aside of $40 billion over the next five years to provide drug benefits for all seniors and modernize the overall Medicare program.
--An additional $21 billion over the next five years to Medicare providers. Some of the money would be used to give an incentive to Medicare plans not to drop the prescription drug coverage they already offer.
--Passage of legislation to permit seniors to buy lower-priced drugs in countries like Canada, increasing competition. The House and Senate approved differing provisions on reimportation in July as part of an agriculture spending bill, but no compromise version has been written.
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