Washington The new Senate Finance Committee chairman said Friday the $300 billion Congress set aside for Medicare must be used solely to provide a prescription drug benefit and at a monthly premium to seniors less than the $52 touted in one plan.
"Benefits are going to drive this," Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said in an interview with The Associated Press.
On other topics, Baucus lowered expectations for any action this year on Social Security and predicted senators would reduce a House-passed package of tax breaks totaling $33.5 billion over 10 years that benefit the oil, gas, coal and electric industries.
"We're going to trim that back," he said.
Just a couple of months into his new job as chairman of the Senate's tax-writing committee, Baucus said passing a prescription benefit plan for senior citizens remains his top priority.
"If we don't by the end of this year, there's no guarantee we'll have $300 billion next year with the budget squeezes," he said, referring to declining budget surplus projections and the weak economy. In May, Congress agreed to set aside $300 billion to spend over 10 years to extend prescription drug coverage. The money is in addition to the nearly $250 billion Medicare is expected to cost next year.
Moderates from Baucus' committee have offered a competing plan that would use the money for other enhancements to Medicare coverage in addition to help on prescriptions.
Baucus said no, "the vast bulk of that has to be benefits."
His stance sets the stage for a potential showdown when lawmakers return from the August recess.
Democrats are pushing a plan that would give all senior citizens unlimited prescription drug benefits after deductibles are met. The poorest Medicare recipients would get the most help.
Premiums planned at around $52 a month would be too high, Baucus said. "We know we have to get the premium down, otherwise people won't buy in," he said.
Also Friday, the top House Republican and Democrat on Medicare Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., and Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif. introduced legislation aimed at improving Medicare's claims process and streamlining the regulations.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer called that measure "an important step toward strengthening Medicare for today's seniors and for future retirees."
On other issues, Baucus said:
Chances were fading that President Bush could win congressional authority this year to negotiate new market-opening trade agreements, partly because of confusion over who speaks for the administration on trade policy.
Baucus said he had inquired about that during a meeting with Bush last week. "Everyone is pointing at everyone else," he said, describing the scene.
The administration hopes to win trade authority before the November World Trade Organization meetings in Doha, Qatar. Baucus said the administration needs to offer a specific plan soon.
"There's not much stomach" in the Senate for changes in the 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut that Congress passed earlier this year. House Republicans hope this fall to pass a bill making the cut permanent it would expire at the end of 2010 under current law.
There is some interest in the idea of partly privatizing Social Security, which Bush supports, but he added, "The devil is in the details." He said prospects appeared "dim to dark" that lawmakers could act this year on Social Security.
He said a Bush-appointed commission was using scare tactics in an effort to win acceptance of a plan to allow some private investment of Social Security funds.
Baucus suggested a nonpartisan commission similar to a 1983 panel appointed by President Reagan should take over. That panel went on to recommend changes such as a gradual increase in the eligibility age for benefits, which Congress later passed.