President reaffirms backing for means tests But Congress lacks unity on higher Medicare premiums for wealthy

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The Senate effort to charge wealthy retirees higher Medicare premiums gained fresh momentum yesterday as President Clinton reaffirmed his general support for the proposal. But the politically sensitive House remained gun-shy.

Meeting at the White House with congressional leaders of both parties, Clinton said, "On principle, I support means-testing," adding that he will work with the leadership to try to resolve problems associated with collecting the premium.


"I would hope we can agree to some sort of premium that's enforceable, and that's fair and that doesn't drive people out of the Medicare system," he said.

Leaders of the Senate, which voted 70-30 last month to charge higher Medicare premiums to elderly Americans with annual incomes of more than $50,000, discerned signals in the upbeat tone of the meeting that their view would prevail.


Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, and Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Senate Democratic leader, emerged from the White House session predicting that some form of means-testing for Medicare beneficiaries could be part of the final budget legislation.

Reaction in House

But in the House, which has been twice burned in recent years by attempts to trim Medicare benefits and is facing another critical election next year, the signals were read differently.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican, said he came away from the meeting convinced that Clinton shared the "general agreement" that on the Medicare premium issue, "the whole question might be too complex to deal with at this time."

GOP House members retain bitter memories of the last year's election campaign during which Democrats charged they were out to destroy Medicare because they tried in 1995 to slow the growth of the program, which covers 38 million elderly and disabled people.

The tactic was so successful that the GOP narrowly avoided losing control of the House.

Democrats, too, have painful Medicare memories. Theirs date from 1988, when Congress voted to expand the Medicare program to provide benefits for catastrophic illness but decided to charge more of higher-income beneficiaries. Reaction was so violent they repealed the program the next year.

"There is significant resistance on the part of House Democrats and Republicans alike," said Ari Fleischman, a spokesman for the Ways and Means committee.


Support for means-testing

Polls have shown strong support among younger workers for means-testing, who resent paying taxes to provide costly health benefits for the affluent elderly. But senior-citizen lobbies are well-organized and working with organized labor to resist changes to Medicare that would directly affect beneficiaries.

House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who has fixed his sights on the 2000 presidential race, has aligned himself with the elderly lobby against the Medicare changes.

In addition to the political issue, the technical problems pose a significant hurdle.

Clinton has complained that the Department of Health and Human Services, which administers Medicare, would need a costly new bureaucracy to enforce an income test. The president would prefer to use the Internal Revenue Service, which already has quick access to income information.

But Republicans fear that using the IRS would make it appear that they are raising taxes. "A poison pill," Lott has said of that idea.


Lott was particularly optimistic after yesterday's session with Clinton, though.

"The president agrees that people with incomes of $100,000 to $125,000 a year should not be subsidized by people making less than $35,000 a year," Lott said.

Pub Date: 7/16/97