WASHINGTON – Democrats are troubled by the inconsistency of Republican lawmakers who approved a major Medicare expansion six years ago that has added tens of billions of dollars to federal deficits, but oppose current health overhaul plans.
All current GOP senators, including the 24 who voted for the 2003 Medicare expansion, oppose the health care bill that's backed by President Barack Obama and most congressional Democrats.
The Democrats claim that their plan moving through Congress now will pay for itself with higher taxes and spending cuts and they cite the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office for support.
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By contrast, when Republicans controlled the House, Senate and White House in 2003, they overcame Democratic opposition to add a deficit-financed prescription drug benefit to Medicare. The program will cost a half-trillion dollars over 10 years, or more by some estimates.
With no new taxes or spending offsets accompanying the Medicare drug program, the cost has been added to the federal debt.
Some Republicans say they don't believe the CBO's projections that the health care overhaul will pay for itself. As for their newfound worries about big government health expansions, they essentially say: That was then, this is now.
Six years ago, "it was standard practice not to pay for things," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "We were concerned about it, because it certainly added to the deficit, no question." His 2003 vote has been vindicated, Hatch said, because the prescription drug benefit "has done a lot of good."
Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said those who see hypocrisy "can legitimately raise that issue." But he defended his positions in 2003 and now, saying the economy is in worse shape and Americans are more anxious.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said simply: "Dredging up history is not the way to move forward." She noted that she fought unsuccessfully to offset some of President George W. Bush's deep tax cuts at the time.
But for now, she said, "it's a question of what's in this package," which the Senate passed Thursday in a party-line vote. The Senate bill still must be reconciled with a House version.
The political situation is different now, Snowe said, because "we're in a tough climate and people are angry and frustrated."
Some conservatives have no patience with such explanations.
"As far as I am concerned, any Republican who voted for the Medicare drug benefit has no right to criticize anything the Democrats have done in terms of adding to the national debt," said Bruce Bartlett, an official in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He made his comments in a Forbes article titled "Republican Deficit Hypocrisy."
Bartlett said the 2003 Medicare expansion was "a pure giveaway" that cost more than this year's Senate or House health bills will cost. More important, he said, "the drug benefit had no dedicated financing, no offsets and no revenue-raisers. One hundred percent of the cost simply added to the federal budget deficit."
The pending health care bills in Congress, he noted, are projected to add nothing to the deficit over 10 years.
Other lawmakers who voted for the 2003 Medicare expansion include the Senate's top three Republican leaders, all sharp critics of the Obama-backed health care plans: Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Jon Kyl of Arizona and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Eleven Democratic senators voted with them back then.
The 2003 vote in the House was even more divisive. It resulted in a nearly three-hour roll call in which GOP leaders put extraordinary pressure on colleagues to back the prescription drug addition to Medicare. In the end, 204 Republicans and 16 Democrats voted for the bill.
Democrats certainly have indulged in deficit spending over the years. They say they have been more responsible over the last two decades, however. Bill Clinton's administration was largely constrained by a pay-as-you-go law, requiring most tax cuts or program expansions to be offset elsewhere with tax increases and spending cuts.
Clinton ended his presidency with a budget surplus. But it soon was wiped out by a sagging economy, the Iraq war, GOP tax cuts and the lapsing of the pay-as-you-go restrictions.
Obama and many Democrats in Congress have vowed to restore those restrictions. But they waived them this year for programs, including heavy stimulus spending meant to pull the economy from the severe recession of 2008-09.
The 2010 deficit is expected to reach $1.5 trillion, and the accumulated federal debt now exceeds $12 trillion. When the Republican-led Congress passed the Medicare expansion in 2003, the deficit was $374 billion and projected to hit $525 billion the following year, in part because of the new prescription drug benefit for seniors.
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