It's the kind of dispute that only makes sense if you live in Washington.
After just one meeting, a "bipartisan" commission on long-term Medicare reform already is splitting-on a partisan basis-over whether public comment can really be received if all the hearings are in Washington.
And everyone was airing their gripes off the record, because they were afraid of creating a partisan conflict on a panel that seeks a national consensus on the future of Medicare.
Some Democrats on the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare plan to push this week for field hearings on how to restructure the Medicare program. Created by last year's balanced-budget law, the 17-member commission includes five Democratic members of Congress.
Democratic congressional aides said members are objecting to a schedule of seven meetings that will take place only in Washington, which they said will reduce comment from beneficiaries and other interested members of the public.
"You sometimes forget how wildly popular (Medicare) is," said a Senate Democratic aide of the need to get outside the Washington Beltway.
The issue is "whether or not we're going to be able to engage the public," the aide said. "It's going to be hard to do from here."
One Republican aide said additional meetings, including field hearings, "are being considered." But another GOP aide said it may be too costly to take the commissioners and staff to a site outside Washington.
Tricia Smith, a senior federal health lobbyist with the American Association of Retired Persons, said she understood the commission's cost concerns, but added: "I do think the commission needs to reach beyond the Beltway and beyond their congressional districts."
The commission got off to a slow start because President Clinton and congressional leaders from both parties didn't reach agreement on the appointment of Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) as chairman until more than a month after the Dec. 1 deadline for naming commissioners.
The commission is to report back on long-term restructuring proposals no later than March 1, 1999.
Its aim is to ensure the Medicare program can cover the 77 million baby boomers who will become eligible for Medicare beginning in 2010. By 2030, one-fifth of the population will be 65 or older.
To accomplish those aims, it has formed three task forces: a "modeling" task force to examine Medicare's place in the healthcare system; a reform task force to look at how to strengthen the existing program; and a "fundamental restructuring" task force to study such issues as turning Medicare into a voucher program or integrating it more closely with Social Security.
The commission's work plan calls for final recommendations to be approved in January 1999 and a final report to be published in February.