WASHINGTON -- Republican congressional leaders struggled yesterday to distance their party from the specific cuts that would have to be made in Medicare to meet their goal of curbing the growth of the popular health care program.
After failing to agree among themselves on a way out of their predicament, the Republicans sought to share the burden of cutting Medicare with President Clinton.
"It's time to step back, examine the facts and lower the rhetoric," Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole told reporters yesterday. He and House Speaker Newt Gingrich called on Mr. Clinton to meet with them today to work out a bipartisan approach to the issue.
But Mr. Clinton maintains that Republicans want to cut Medicare spending by $250 billion over seven years to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy, while also meeting their goal of balancing the federal budget. The Republicans "have painted themselves into a corner, because of their tax cut for the wealthy," House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt said yesterday. "If they didn't have the huge tax cut out there for the wealthy, they would not need the kind of cuts that we are contemplating in Medicare and other programs, and so rather than talking about other ideas for solving this problem, we need to simply pass a budget."
Both the House and the Senate are scheduled to begin action next week on a budget blueprint that would reduce Medicare spending by $250 billion to $300 billion over seven years. As one of the largest and fastest-growing programs in the federal budget, Medicare is an obvious target for savings. It is also one of the few major sources of budget savings available to the Republicans, who have ruled out cuts in Social Security and defense in their drive to wipe out the budget deficit.
But the Republicans have begun to worry about the political impact of Medicare changes that could mean higher premiums and lower benefits for a potent voter group.
House and Senate GOP leaders have been meeting for two days on a plan to create a bipartisan commission on Medicare spending that might be able to take some of the political sting out of the issue. But they could not agree on the form or makeup of such a commission.
During their meeting with reporters yesterday, Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Dole argued that their effort to "preserve, improve and protect" Medicare was unrelated to their budget-balancing efforts. They noted that a recent Clinton administration report had predicted that Medicare would go broke within seven years in any case unless steps were taken to increase revenue or reduce costs.
"We feel this report deserves a legitimate bipartisan response," Mr. Gingrich said.
Instead, Mr. Clinton is scheduled to deliver "a ringing defense of Medicaid and Medicare and assure the audience of our commitment to Medicare" in an address today to the White House Conference on Aging, according to his spokesman, Mike McCurry.
Mr. Clinton has agreed to discuss cuts in Medicare -- but only in the context of a sweeping overhaul of the health care system similar to the failed effort he undertook last year.
Rep. Bill Archer, the Ways and Means Committee chairman, accused the Clinton administration yesterday of holding Medicare reform "hostage" to its insistence on broader health reforms. White House officials didn't really dispute that.
"We don't use the word 'hostage,' but we've said that all along," said one White House official.
The two sides have dueled to an impasse, as each party has urged the other to make the first politically painful proposal to cut Medicare.
House Republicans summoned Donna E. Shalala, secretary of health and human services, to offer her ideas on shoring up Medicare to the House Ways and Means committee yesterday, but she steadfastly declined to take the bait.
Instead, Ms. Shalala insisted that Republicans first come up with a detailed plan to fulfill their proposals to cut taxes and balance the budget.
"Leadership should rest with the president. Where is it?" Rep. Jennifer Dunn, a Washington state Republican, asked at the committee hearing.
Such demands provoked a bemused response from Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a Democrat from New York, who likened the Republicans to "deer frozen in the headlights of a car.
"All of a sudden . . . they come to the president and say, 'Please get us out of this,' " Mr. Rangel said.