MEDICARE REFORM: Commission Faces Difficult Task
In today's National Journal, Richard E. Cohen explores the relationship between Sen. John Breaux (D-LA) and Rep. Bill Thomas (R-CA), the two lawmakers who have been selected to lead the 17-member bipartisan Medicare reform commission. Cohen writes that the "prospects for the panel will depend, in large part, on the personal chemistry" between Breaux and Thomas. The two lawmakers, Cohen states, "participated in elaborate negotiations in recent weeks over the structure of the commission that resulted in the unexpectedly prominent role for Thomas." Those talks "gave them an opportunity to take each other's measure," and Breaux said the result "'speaks positively' about the future."
Cohen writes that Breaux "has become a consummate consensus builder," who has taken a "particular interest in centrist steps to control health care and entitlement costs, both as a Senate Finance Committee member and in other roles." Meanwhile, Thomas is the chief Republican "bill writer on health care issues" who has also "proven his partisan mettle." According to Cohen, both Democrats and Republicans hope that the commission will recommend postponing changes to Medicare until after the 2000 election. Cohen also writes that the "most important task" facing Breaux and Thomas may be to "save Clinton and Members of Congress from themselves," since the focus on Medicare has changed from "belt-tightening to actually adding Medicare beneficiaries or services." However, Breaux said he is optimistic that the commission will be more successful than past "presidential commissions with post-election mandates to fix volatile problems." "I don't want to be a part of a commission whose report gathers dust. Both sides want a reasonable and balanced report," he said (Cohen, 1/23 issue).
In related news, Sen. Breaux said yesterday that "Congress should postpone President Clinton's plan to expand the health care program to younger retirees until the panel studies the issue." "We need to take a look at it in terms of how it affects the viability and solvency of the system," he said (USA Today, 1/23).
No Rate Hike
Today's "Washington Wire" column in the Wall Street Journal reports that the White House has dropped "a proposal to raise Medicare premiums for the well-to-do," (Shafer, 1/23).
In The Post's Opinion
An editorial in today's Washington Post "offer[s] some guidelines" for the bipartisan Medicare commission as its members begin deliberations. First, the editorial states that the debate over Medicare reform "should not become a proxy for the larger, ideological debate about the size and role of the federal government." In addition, the editorial states that the commission should not rule out either option for reform -- raising taxes or cutting benefits. The editorial says, "[I]t's wrong to wall off either side of the ledger; the commission all but dooms itself if it does so. To lay all the burden on the benefit side would likely do enormous social damage, just as to rely entirely on tax would be to institutionalize indiscipline" (1/23).