Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said last week that he wants the full Senate to debate a Medicare reform plan drafted by a bipartisan commission.
In a rare appearance at a committee hearing, Lott urged the Senate Finance Committee to approve the "premium support" plan proposed by Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) and Rep. William Thomas (R-Calif.), the co-chairmen of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare.
If the Finance Committee sent the proposal to the full Senate, Lott said, "it would be a marker for everyone else." He called the commission plan "the future of Medicare."
Lott's comments came at a crucial time for the future of the Breaux-Thomas proposal. House GOP leaders may be reluctant to ask members to vote for a bill that could be unpopular among seniors because it could ask Medicare beneficiaries to pay more of their healthcare costs.
With only a five-vote edge in the House, a vote in favor of an unpopular reform plan could cost the Republicans their majority.
Thomas, chairman of a key House healthcare panel, said he welcomed Lott's comments and said he expects the House leadership to make similar comments when given an opportunity. He also cited support from eight moderate Democrats who asked both House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) for a vote on the proposal.
Thomas said he would consider eliminating some of the controversial measures from the commission proposal, such as those extending cuts of Medicare provider payments.
The commission proposal, which Thomas said will be released as a bill within a week, calls for transforming Medicare from a bill payer to a system that helps seniors pay for most, but not all, of private health insurance premiums.
The proposal would provide federal funding for outpatient prescription drugs for seniors with incomes of up to 135% of the poverty level, or $10,568 for individuals.
Ten of the commission's 17 members supported the plan, one short of the number required by law for it to become a formal commission recommendation.
Breaux, meanwhile, said President Clinton plans to release his own Medicare reform plan after Memorial Day.
Clinton has been silent about his proposal, although he has said he wants Medicare to cover outpatient prescription drugs and to dedicate 15% of the federal budget surplus-$700 billion over 15 years-to extend the life of the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund by a dozen years.
Congress took a similar action last week. By a 416-12 vote, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would earmark use of the federal budget surplus exclusively for Medicare and Social Security reform.
The legislation would set aside the surplus, now estimated at $111 billion in federal fiscal 1999, until Congress passes legislation to reform Social Security or Medicare.