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Medicare seen as a political liability for Bush

WASHINGTON—President Bush tapped the brakes on Medicare spending Monday, but kept his right foot on the accelerator in a move that's likely to frustrate both political fringes but do nothing to ease anxiety over the program's mushrooming long-term costs.

Bush proposed curbing the growth of projected Medicare spending by $36 billion over five years. White House aides noted that it would still grow by 7.5 percent a year—driven not least by the cost of Bush's new prescription-drug benefit.

The $36 billion cut won't be enough to please fiscal conservatives, who complain about runaway federal spending. But it would be too much for liberals, who want government to cover more health care costs for the elderly.

That leaves Bush a political loser when it comes to Medicare—and illustrates how budget choices complicate governing and politics.

"I don't think he can make an asset out of being in the middle anymore," said Democratic strategist Jenny Backus.

Bush's expansion of Medicare in 2003 to help the elderly pay for prescription drugs, a keystone achievement of his first term, has become a political albatross. Republicans initially thought it would help Bush take the health care issue off the table as an issue favoring Democrats, but once the drug benefit went into effect on Jan. 1, many Americans became confused and angry about it. A recent Gallup Poll found that 58 percent of Americans were dissatisfied with Medicare, and only 35 percent were satisfied.

Conservatives complain that Bush's drug benefit is the biggest expansion of a government entitlement since Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society in the 1960s. Many are bitter that the Bush White House concealed the program's true costs from Congress while promising that it wouldn't exceed $400 billion and forcing Congress to vote on it. Some fear the benefit's growing price tag —now estimated to be $724 billion over 10 years, and perhaps $2 trillion over the following decade, according to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank—will be difficult to defend, particularly in the conservative-dominated primaries that will pick the 2008 Republican presidential nominee.

The result is that Bush has lost ground on an issue he'd hoped would expand his support.

A recent poll by ABC News and The Washington Post found that 38 percent of Americans approved of his handling of the prescription drug benefit, down from 46 percent two years ago. The ranks of those disapproving rose to 51 percent from 35 percent.

At the same time, Democrats found Bush's new five-year Medicare cut to be the kind of proposal they can criticize in campaign commercials this fall—even if Congress rejects it. Said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives: "The Bush budget reduces the quality of Medicare services for our seniors."

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(The Gallup Poll of 1,003 adults was conducted Jan. 9-12 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. The ABC-Washington Post poll of 1,002 adults was conducted Jan. 23-26 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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