Senate Democrats Attack Republicans on Medicare
By ROBERT PEAR
And doctors, pharmacists and advocates for Medicare beneficiaries said they would step up pressure on members of Congress when they return home for the Fourth of July recess.
On Thursday night, Republican senators blocked efforts by Democrats to take up the bill, which would have stopped the impending cut in payments to doctors.
President Bush has threatened to veto the bill, in part because it would finance a small increase in payments to doctors next year by reducing payments to insurance companies that care for some Medicare beneficiaries.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee fired off a barrage of criticism at Republican senators, particularly those running for election this fall.
A typical broadside, disseminated in New Hampshire, said Senator John E. Sununu had â€œcast the deciding vote against legislation to prevent steep cuts in Medicare reimbursement rates to physicians.â€?
The news release said Mr. Sununuâ€™s vote would â€œjeopardize seniorsâ€™ access to doctors.â€? Many doctors say they are reluctant to accept new Medicare patients because of the confusion and uncertainty about Medicare payments.
In nearly identical terms, Democrats attacked seven other Republican senators: Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, John Cornyn of Texas, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Roger Wicker of Mississippi.
A doctorsâ€™ group in Texas abruptly rescinded its endorsement of Mr. Cornyn. â€œThe Texas Medical Association Political Action Committee is outraged that you made the decision to follow the direction of the Bush administration and voted to protect health insurance companies at the expense of Americaâ€™s seniors,â€? Dr. Manuel Acosta, its chairman, wrote to Mr. Cornyn.
Mr. Cornyn said no senator wanted â€œthese draconian cuts,â€? and accused Democrats of exploiting the issue.
Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Republicans would and should pay a political price. â€œItâ€™s rare that you see people so eager to commit political suicide,â€? Mr. Schumer said.
The cuts occur automatically because a statutory formula sets annual goals for Medicare spending on doctorsâ€™ services.
The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said he would try again to take up the bill after the recess.
Michael O. Leavitt, secretary of health and human services, said he hoped to â€œminimize the impactâ€? of the cut. Medicare said it would hold new claims for 10 business days, so doctors would not see the lower payments â€œuntil July 15, at the earliest.â€?
Democrats were clearly prepared for the assault, having compiled data to show how each senator had voted on Medicare legislation in the past and how much money each had received in campaign contributions from the health insurance industry.
Joseph P. Lech, who owns five drugstores in northeastern Pennsylvania, said he was surprised and disappointed to see that Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, had voted against a motion to take up the bill, which would speed payments to pharmacies. â€œIâ€™ve been a registered Republican for almost 30 years, but I am beginning to wonder why,â€? Mr. Lech said.
Mr. Specter said, â€œWe were faced with an ultimatum, take it or leave it, with no opportunity to offer any amendments because the House of Representatives had left town.â€?
Mr. McConnell, the Senate minority leader, said passing the bill would have been futile because Mr. Bush would have vetoed it.
Mr. Reid brushed aside such concerns in a testy exchange with Mr. McConnell on the Senate floor on Thursday.
â€œA veto by the president?â€? Mr. Reid said. â€œGee whiz, who would be afraid of him? He has a 29 percent approval rating. How in the world could anybody be afraid of him vetoing a bill?â€?
Rebecca Fisher, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said, â€œDemocrats are trying to mislead voters into thinking it was the Republicansâ€™ fault the bill didnâ€™t pass.â€? In fact, she said, Democrats are to blame because they did not work with Republicans.
â€œThe Democratsâ€™ idea of bipartisanship is laughable,â€? she said.
When the House passed the bill on Tuesday, Republicans voted for it by more than two to one.
Swamped with complaints, one Republican, Representative Wally Herger of California, issued a virtual apology for having voted against the bill. If the bill comes up again, he said in a letter to doctors and other constituents, â€œI intend to fully support it.â€?