President Serves Up a Tasty Medicare Treat

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Trillion-dollar windfall or not, Bill Clinton is definitely still a somewhat parsimonious New Democrat. The President went public with his mostly pre-leaked Medicare reforms on Tuesday, a what's-not-to-like mix of senior-pleasing pork and future-inspired frugality. The headliner, a plan for prescription-drug coverage, would cost $118 billion over the next 10 years. But Clinton wants to add some copayments, nudge healthier people into cost-effective HMOs and increase competition among hospital-equipment contractors -– saving, by White House estimates, $44 billion over that same period. The less glamorous, below-the-fold story has the President dedicating $794 billion to Medicare over the next 15 years, a move that should extend the life of the Medicare Trust Fund from 2016 to 2027.

Of course, all of this is just talk at the moment. The betting is that the bigger part of the spending (that $794 billion) will not get approved until Clinton has handed over the keys to the White House -- if it's approved at all. "Little things may get passed," says TIME White House correspondent Jay Branegan, "but any serious shoring up will probably have to wait for a new president and Congress." Meanwhile, of course, those "little things" will go a long way toward wooing seniors over to the Democratic half of the voting booth in 2000. They’ll also be very hard for Republicans to resist. "The GOP is in serious disarray right now," says Branegan. "They shot themselves in the foot on guns and Kosovo, and they don’t want to hand the Democrats another issue for 2000." When it comes to touchy-feely stuff like Grandma and her heart pills, Clinton has it all over them -- and they know it. With that House majority looking thinner than ever, Republicans -- who would like to give back a lot of the surplus in tax cuts -- have learned that when they try to shout Clinton down, they lose. Kick up a little fuss and hammer out a deal, and they can save the larger argument (solvency) for a less formidable opponent (Al Gore) or a fellow traveler (George W).