Washington A pivotal Republican is joining the congressional drive to eliminate the financial penalty for people who miss today's deadline for enrolling in the Medicare drug benefit, the latest sign of a growing rebellion against President Bush on the issue.
Rep. Nancy Johnson said she has talked to enough colleagues to believe such a proposal would pass, probably in the fall, and plans to introduce legislation to waive the penalty.
"The bottom line is this is a democracy, and the Congress responds to the people and shapes the program so it's good for them," said Johnson, who heads the House Ways and Means' subcommittee on health.
"I think it's fair and reasonable to eliminate the penalty" for 2006, the Connecticut Republican told The Associated Press.
It is also significant that the Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee is not ruling out an effort to block the penalty. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa said he will not consider changes to the prescription drug program, in place since Jan. 1, until he goes over final enrollment figures.
"If I told you on April 15 you didn't have to file your income taxes until April 30, you wouldn't do it," he said.
With the endorsement by one of the program's leading supporters, Johnson joins the handful of GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate who have split publicly with the Bush's administration's position that the enrollment deadline and late penalty should remain.
The administration has made an exception for people who qualify for extra help because of their low income.
Under current law, people who wait until December to enroll would have $2.31 per month added to their monthly premium. That amount would rise annually to reflect the national average premium for that particular year.
Johnson said the drive to waive the penalty does not reflect concerns about a program criticized by Democrats as more beneficial to drug companies and insurers than to older people and the disabled.
"What is true, is absolutely true, is that seniors are saving a lot of money," she said. "It's lifting burdens off the back of retirees to a degree never imagined."
Democrats pledge to keep pressing to extend the deadline and waive the penalty for people who sign up after today.
Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, says that he hears nothing but complaints about the program from his constituents.
"I really think it's a cruel thing to penalize people for what has been admittedly a very complex procedure in order to get the drugs," he said. "To put a penalty for the rest of their lives on our oldest citizens, I think, is just an improper and wrong thing to do."
Around the country, thousands of volunteers are helping to enroll Medicare beneficiaries into the program. The administration's latest estimate indicates that about 6 million beneficiaries remain without prescription drug coverage. Democrats contend the number is probably closer to 9 million.