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Bush vows to veto any changes in Medicare prescription drug benefit

WASHINGTON—President Bush vowed on Friday to veto any changes that Congress attempts to make in the new Medicare prescription drug benefit that's to become available next year.

His threat sets up a potential showdown between the president and lawmakers who have angrily watched the benefit's projected 10-year cost explode from $400 billion—the cost Bush told them when many reluctantly agreed to it in late 2003—to $724 billion, the new estimate the administration made public this week.

"I signed Medicare reform proudly, and any attempt to limit the choices of our seniors to take away their prescription-drug coverage under Medicare will meet my veto," Bush said at a swearing-in ceremony for new Health and Human Services Secretary Mike O. Leavitt.

Since becoming president, Bush has never exercised his veto. Ironically, House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, suggested to Office of Management and Budget Director Josh Bolten this week that the president may have to use his veto power to make Congress hold the line on spending. Instead, Bush is threatening to issue his first veto against any attempt by Congress to limit escalating costs.

Many Republicans and Democrats were furious this week when they discovered in Bush's proposed fiscal 2006 budget that the first 10 years of the drug benefit plan will cost $724 billion. White House officials had assured skittish GOP lawmakers in 2003 that it would cost no more than $400 billion in the first decade.

The benefit passed the House of Representatives by 220-215, a slim victory achieved only after Republican leaders left the vote open for more than three hours while they worked to convince reluctant members to support the bill.

Just two months after the law was enacted, administration officials revised the program's cost to over $500 billion. That came out shortly after Knight Ridder disclosed that Medicare's chief actuary had been threatened with being fired if he shared with Congress his estimate that the cost would be in that range before lawmakers passed it.

This week's new cost estimate triggered complaints from Democrats that the administration had deceived Congress about the drug benefit's true cost and fueled calls from members of both parties for changes in the benefit.

"I still am very suspect of this drug program and where it's going and the amount of money it's going to cost," said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. Gregg said he'd like to revisit the Medicare bill.

Democrats agreed.

"We need to act now to lower the increasing cost of this new program," said Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis. "We should pass legislation allowing the government to negotiate the prices of prescription drugs offered through the new Medicare benefit."

Bush was having none of that Friday.

"We all know the alternative to reform: a Medicare system that offers outdated benefits and imposes needless costs," the president said. "For decades we promised America's seniors that we can do better, and we did. Now we must keep our word."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BUSH

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