THE Republican-led Congress enters its second phase this week with debate on GOP plans to balance the budget by 2002. One of the most divisive questions will be what to do about Medicare.
The House Budget Committee is proposing that Medicare spending be reduced some $280 billion below projected levels as part of more than $1 trillion in cutbacks over the seven years between now and 2002. Democrats are balking, saying the health program for the elderly should not be sacrificed to pay for Republican tax cuts they say would benefit mainly the wealthy.
''We want to focus on Medicare as Medicare. Forget the budget pressure,'' House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia said this week, stressing that the system is heading toward bankruptcy without major structural changes.
Sen. James Exon of Nebraska, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, said recently that tax cuts, Medicare, and cuts in agriculture programs will be the three big issues when the committee meets this week to debate GOP plans to balance the budget.
The committee chairman, Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico said his budget plan will not include tax cuts. A House-passed bill would cut taxes by $189 billion over five years and an estimated $700 billion over 10 years.
Mr. Gingrich has accused President Clinton of playing politics in his refusal to cooperate with the Republicans on Medicare without their first presenting a plan.
''It's been very disappointing to watch the president stay irrelevant on this,'' Gingrich said. ''But he apparently is absolutely determined to run -- to be a candidate and never actually serve in the office in between elections.''
Mr. Clinton has said that the Medicare crisis can't be taken up without considering the entire issue of health-care reform.
Gingrich is proposing that the elderly be given six or seven options, including joining managed care programs or staying in the current Medicare system. Medicare users should receive 10 percent of any waste in the system they report, he said. ''If you go to Walmart and you can buy something cheaper than you can buy it at the most expensive boutique in your city and it's the same thing, you know, that's called savings,'' Gingrich said.