A defiant White House on Monday spurned House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s invitation to propose ways of restructuring Medicare and said the Republicans in Congress must first specify how they intend to reconcile their promises to balance the budget and cut taxes.
President Clinton’s chief of staff, Leon Panetta, said the administration was not interested in any plan to shore up the Medicare trust fund unless it also made comprehensive improvements in the nation’s health care system and provided coverage to some of the 41 million Americans who now have no health insurance.
Panetta’s comments escalate the political conflict over Medicare, the federal health insurance program for the elderly and disabled, just as the 1995 White House Conference on Aging is to begin.
The White House and the Republicans both seem to be assuming that whoever first specifies cuts in Medicare will suffer severe political damage.
Panetta, a former chairman of the House Budget Committee, summoned reporters to his White House office Monday afternoon and declared that the Republicans “have, to some extent, painted themselves in a corner by promising what they can’t deliver.
“They have basically promised that they could balance the budget by the year 2002, that they could provide tax cuts totaling about $345 billion over seven years, $600 billion over 10 years,” Panetta said. “And they are trying to find a way to pay for it. They basically know that they can’t deliver on those first two promises without significant cuts in Medicare, along with other programs like Medicaid and education.”
Miguel Casas, a spokesman for Gingrich, said the speaker had no immediate response.
Gingrich initiated the latest round of wrangling over Medicare on Friday, when he sent a letter to the president asking how the administration proposes to avoid the bankruptcy of Medicare.
The trustees of Medicare’s Hospital Insurance Trust Fund, including four administration officials, said last month that the trust fund would run out of money in the year 2002, well before significant numbers of baby boomers retire.
In his letter, Gingrich asked the president to present proposals to guarantee the solvency of Medicare and asked, “Does the administration recommend tax increases?”
Gingrich said Medicare was in a financial crisis, and at a briefing on Capitol Hill on Monday, a Republican aide to the House Ways and Means Committee said, “The Medicare problem can be solved independent of health care reform.”
In a letter responding to the speaker Monday, Panetta refused to answer Gingrich’s questions.