WASHINGTON - House Republicans shut down yesterday an inquiry by Democrats into whether the Bush administration acted illegally or inappropriately last year when it withheld from Congress its estimates of the true cost of the Medicare prescription drug bill.
At issue are allegations that then-Medicare administrator Thomas A. Scully threatened to fire his top actuary if he gave lawmakers his analyses showing that the costs would be higher than Bush administration officials were saying publicly.
Yesterday's conclusion of a Ways and Means Committee hearing all but ensured that two individuals central to the controversy - Scully and White House aide Doug Badger - will not testify before Congress.
Separately, the Health and Human Services Department is conducting an internal investigation into the matter, and Democratic lawmakers have requested civil and criminal probes.
Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee had asked Scully and Badger to answer questions about when President Bush and other top-ranking officials were told that internal estimates of the Medicare bill's cost were more than one-third higher than the $400 billion Bush had set aside, and why those analyses had not been shared with lawmakers.
But White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, in a letter to committee chairman Bill Thomas, a California Republican, noted "long-standing White House policy" against having White House staff testify before Congress as the reason that Badger would not appear.
And Scully, now a private consultant, said in a letter to Thomas that he was unable to appear before the committee because "unfortunately, for the past ten? days I have been traveling."
Committee Democrats rejected both explanations. In the case of Badger, they said that at least 45 high-ranking Clinton administration officials had testified before Congress; in the case of Scully, they offered to let him appear later. But Republicans squashed the Democrats' subpoena attempts.
Republican committee members accused the Democrats of trying to capitalize on the controversy, which erupted last month when Medicare actuary Richard S. Foster told reporters that Scully had threatened to fire him if he responded to Democratic requests for analyses of the pending legislation.
Thomas, the committee chairman, said that while he was willing to use "whatever tools are necessary to get to the bottom of a violation of law," he was not willing to issue subpoenas to Badger and Scully "to satisfy someone's whim or curiosity."
As for preliminary estimates by Foster indicating that the Medicare bill could cost as much as $551 billion over 10 years, Thomas said the information "probably would not have enlightened Congress as much as confused Congress." Thomas chaired the House-Senate conference committee that finalized the legislation.
In January, the Bush administration revised the estimated cost of Medicare overhaul to $534 billion.
Democrats, who noted that the original Medicare bill passed the House in June by just one vote, said that a broader constitutional issue was at stake: How far can the executive branch go in withholding information from Congress that could affect the vote?
In November, a narrowly divided Congress passed the Medicare bill, which creates a new prescription drug benefit and gives private insurers and drug companies billions of dollars to lure seniors and the disabled into managed-care plans. Several conservative Republicans, who were concerned about the bill's projected $400 billion cost, voted for the legislation only after hours of intense lobbying .
"The main issue is, who knew about the actuarial figure, and why wasn't it disclosed in a timely fashion?" said Rep. Sander M. Levin, a Michigan Democrat. "There was a cover-up of this information, and we want to know how high the cover-up went."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.