In a rush, Republicans push votes on energy and Medicare bills

Energy and Medicare bills, voted on as early as this week, are a crucial test for Bush, and a tightrope for Democrats.

After months of tough, secret negotiations - largely among themselves - Republicans are rushing deals on the year's two biggest bills back to Congress for a vote as early as this week. The new agreements on Medicare and energy policy are complex, and the political stakes could not be higher. Along with homeland security, these are the top domestic priorities of President Bush, who needs a win. They involve Washington's most powerful lobbies and could affect every American.

For seniors, the Medicare bill offers a broad new entitlement that promises to reimburse part of the cost of prescription drugs - a need not anticipated when Congress set up Medicare in 1965. "This bipartisan agreement is the most significant improvements in senior health care coverage in nearly 40 years," said Speaker J. Dennis Hastert on Saturday.

But critics say it sets up stark tradeoffs down the line, especially for younger taxpayers who will cover the costs. One of the most controversial pieces of the agreement involved setting up a competition between private plans and the fee-for-service Medicare system. The plan, once conceived as universal, was negotiated down to a more limited demonstration project.

Still, even before Republican leaders released the details of their Medicare reform, leading Democrats and some GOP moderates said it could undermine guarantees for seniors in the traditional system. "This proposal will serve to end Medicare as we know it for millions of senior and disabled Americans," said Sen. Olympia Snowe [R] of Maine, who circulated a letter signed by 43 senators, including seven Republicans.

At the same time, some conservatives worry that the real costs of the new entitlement could soar well beyond the $400 billion budgeted for the next 10 years, especially with the retirement of more than 76 million Baby Boomers after 2011.

"Taxes are going to soar once this gets under way. We're headed into unfunded liabilities we can't even imagine," says Robert Moffit at the Heritage Foundation.

The outlook for a broad overhaul of the nation's energy policy, also announced over the weekend, is not as partisan. Here, the disagreements are less ideological than regional. While expected to cost $20 billion over the same period, the energy bill could have a much bigger impact on the energy industry, where even changes in a few words of a regulation can mean hundreds of millions for producers.

Supporters say it will spur construction of new power plants as well as a natural-gas pipeline from Alaska to Chicago. The bill also includes incentives for wind, biomass, solar, and geothermal energy.

Conceived in secret, the bill is a pale version of what was first proposed by Vice President Cheney's controversial task force early in the Bush administration. It does not open Alaskan wilderness or protected Atlantic and Pacific coasts for drilling. Plans to survey the continental shelf for exploration were shelved, after opposition from environmental groups.

But activists say that the new bill is still a windfall for "old energy" producers and will cut into protections for consumers. "It will put consumers at the mercy of large power companies ..., and there will be many more Enron-type scandals possible in the future," says Anna Aurilio, with US PIRG, a public-interest group.

While environmental groups are a key Democratic constituency, activists say they worry that regional pressures to sign the agreement may prove too strong. The top Senate negotiator, Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, says he's kept in mind the 60 votes needed to get the bill through the Senate - and the necessary tradeoffs.

Even before the bill was voted on in the Senate, Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota was running campaign ads touting support of a bill that included ethanol, a boon to corn-belt states.

"Republicans have been buying off opponents, there is no question," says Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group. "The ethanol provisions are very important in the next elections. We're talking with Senate Democrats, but we're not sure we can stop this."

"If the Republicans get both of these pieces of legislation, they will have had a very successful session, and the big winner will be Bush," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "It's President Bush that has the real challenge in elections next November."

But he adds that Democrats must be careful in opposing bills deemed important to voters. "They can afford to throw down the gauntlet on one of these bills, but not both. If they go after both, it will simply confirm charges of obstructionism."

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