For the second consecutive week, a much-hyped make-or-break deadline on a federal budget agreement came and went, but Republican leaders and White House budget negotiators did seem to make progress.
At stake for healthcare providers is $20 billion to $25 billion in budgeted Medicare spending from fiscal 1998 through 2002. That's the amount separating the two sides' Medicare budget goals.
The two sides appeared to be closer than ever to agreement on the Medicare piece of the budget pie, but they remained far apart on other areas, notably the size and scope of a tax cut.
Congressional Democrats, who have been concerned that the White House is negotiating around them, went to the White House to meet with President Clinton last week.
After talking with Clinton, the
Democrats seemed to have changed their strategy. Many of the same lawmakers who previously said they wouldn't support further Medicare spending reductions said after the meeting that they wouldn't rule out additional savings.
Instead of drawing a line in the sand on cuts, the Democrats were stressing the need to overhaul the Medicare system.
"There is more than just a number to these negotiations," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). "We have to show that we can modernize this program . . . and protect patients' rights."
That sentiment was echoed by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, who had previously been adamant that Medicare spending not be slowed by more than $100 billion over the five-year period.
"The number's not as important as the changes to the program," he said.
The White House has proposed saving slightly more than $100 billion from projected Medicare spending. Republican budget negotiators are seeking between $120 billion and $125 billion.
Absent changes by lawmakers, Medicare spending will increase from $209 billion in fiscal 1998 to $292 billion in 2002, or a total of $1.25 trillion over that five-year period, the Congressional Budget Office says.
Over that period, the savings difference between the two sides represents less than 2% of total budgeted Medi-care expenditures.
Despite the small differences, negotiations seem to be centering around a number of issues relating to how much beneficiaries will pay. Wyden said he would not oppose some beneficiary means testing, a measure proposed in 1995 by congressional Republicans. There has also been some talk of reducing the new beneficiary benefits included in the Clinton budget released earlier this year, according to sources familiar with the talks.
But while movement on the negotiations is slow, both sides remain upbeat. Republicans, who had said each of the past two weeks that talks would end if an agreement wasn't reached by week's end, still hadn't pulled the plug on the talks.