WASHINGTON -- President Clinton said yesterday that he would veto the Republicans' legislative package for Medicare and Medicaid. He said their proposals for large savings in the government health plans for the elderly and the poor would have "Draconian consequences" and would "dismantle Medicare as we know it."
Speaking to elderly people at the White House just 24 hours after House Republicans outlined their proposals, Mr. Clinton said, "If these health care cuts come to my desk, of this size, I would have no choice but to veto it."
The Republicans seek to cut $270 billion, or 14 percent, from projected Medicare spending during the next seven years. The magnitude of the savings is dictated by the Republicans' plan to balance the budget in seven years, a blueprint approved by both houses of Congress in June.
But Republicans say the main reason for their Medicare proposals is to prevent the program's Hospital Insurance Trust Fund from going bankrupt.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich's press secretary, Tony Blankley, said he was not upset by the president's comments. Instead, he said: "I am encouraged by that statement as I understand it. It suggests that the president has not had our proposal correctly explained to him. When the president has a chance to understand the bill, we think there is a very good chance that he will like what he sees and will want to sign it. Congressional Democrats have been irresponsibly misrepresenting our proposal."
Even while threatening a veto, Mr. Clinton urged elderly people to seek bipartisan support for changes in Medicare that would control costs without harming beneficiaries. "We ought to be here to build a bridge," he said.
Congressional Democrats, who have accused the Republicans of hiding crucial details of their plan, had pleaded with the White House to threaten a veto.
The Republicans would sharply raise Medicare premiums for affluent elderly people, reduce payments to doctors and hospitals and let beneficiaries switch from Medicare to private health plans.
Democrats and some moderate Republicans see a way out of the impasse. If Republicans would reduce their demands for tax cuts, Democrats might negotiate some savings in Medicare. But any compromise is probably months off.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican, brushed aside Mr. Clinton's threat yesterday. "The Democrats have a craven approach to Medicare, which is to let it go bankrupt in the long run for what they perceive to be short-term political gain," he said. The budget blueprint would cut projected Medicaid spending by $182 billion, or 19 percent, during seven years. Medicare is for the elderly and disabled; Medicaid is for low-income people of all ages.
Republicans say that Medicare's Hospital Insurance Trust Fund will go bankrupt in 2002 if the current law is not changed. Democrats contend that the money saved from Medicare will be used to balance the federal budget and cut taxes for wealthy people.
In his speech yesterday, Mr. Clinton denounced the Republicans' Medicare proposals. "Their plan would increase premiums and other costs for senior citizens," he said. "It would reduce doctor choice. It would force many doctors to stop serving seniors altogether. It threatens to put rural hospitals and urban hospitals out of business. Brick by brick, it would dismantle Medicare as we know it."
The Associated Press reported that House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri sharply attacked the GOP proposal in a speech at the National Press Club.
"The health of the elderly shall not be bartered away for a fistful of supply-side silver," he said, adding Democrats would try to delay GOP efforts to bring the measure to the floor unless Republicans agree to lengthy hearings.
In June, Mr. Clinton offered a plan to balance the budget in 10 years. He said his plan would squeeze $124 billion of savings from Medicare and $54 billion from Medicaid during seven years.