WASHINGTON (AP) - The two top Republicans in Congress, challenging President Clinton on a campaign issue that favors Democrats, are seeking immediate prescription drug help for low-income Medicare recipients, with additional funds to aid all senior citizens in the future.
"Sadly, it has proved very difficult to get a bipartisan compromise," on the issue of prescription drugs, House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi wrote Clinton in a letter to be delivered on Monday.
"We hope that partisan bickering would not prevent us from helping those who need it most now," according to the letter, a copy of which was obtained in advance.
The GOP leaders outlined five proposals they said Congress and the White House should agree to enact before lawmakers adjourn for the elections next month. In addition to government subsidies for the poor, they also mentioned legislation to allow purchases of lower-priced drugs in Canada.
White House policy adviser Joel Johnson, traveling with the president in California, said the administration wouldn't denounce the entire GOP package, but he said the proposals don't go far enough and he believes election-year politics motivated the Hastert-Lott letter.
"This sounds like the Republican leadership is giving up on the idea of a real prescription drug benefit this year. The president is not giving up," Johnson said.
The five Republican proposals include:
-Creation of a Medicare "lock-box" to make sure Medicare payroll tax receipts are not diverted to other government programs.
-Swift passage of prescription drug legislation to help low-income seniors "who currently have to choose between prescription drugs and food."
-Setting aside $40 billion over the next five years, money to provide drug benefits for all seniors and modernize the overall Medicare program.
-Provide an additional $21 billion over the next five years to Medicare providers. Some of the funds would be used to give an incentive to Medicare plans not to drop the prescription drug coverage they already offer.
-Passing legislation to permit seniors to buy lower-priced drugs in countries like Canada.
With elections only six week away, polling indicates the prescription drug issue is an important one, particularly in the battleground states of the Midwest, and that Democrats are favored over Republicans.
An ABC News-Washington Post poll after the summer political conventions gave Vice President Al Gore the Democratic presidential nominee, an 18-point advantage over Republican rival George W. Bush on the issue.
The issue is important in congressional races, as well. House Republicans received polling information after their summer break that said they needed to show the public they had a plan to help the neediest seniors, according to GOP sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.
As Lott and Hastert noted, Congress has been gridlocked over the issue. "We are committed to provide a prescription drug benefit to needy seniors, and we remain committed to helping all seniors with the cost of prescription drugs," the Republican leaders wrote.
Laura Nichols, an aide to House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, said the GOP letter "sounds like a desperate attempt on the eve of the election for the Republicans to look like they're on the right side of the issue. Until the Republicans agree to deliver a prescription drug benefit through Medicare, they are nibbling around the edges of the problem."
Clinton, Gore and most Democrats favor legislation to create a new prescription drug benefit under Medicare, available to all recipients who want to pay for it, with subsidies for the less well off.
Republicans generally reject that approach. In the House, the leadership muscled through an alternative earlier in the year that relies on subsidies to the pharmaceutical industry, in hopes companies will offer prescription drug coverage to Medicare recipients. Low-income senior citizens would receive help under the GOP approach, as well.
Additional proposals are circulating in the Senate. One, by Sen. William Roth, R-Del., chairman of the Finance Committee, would help low income senior citizens, but that bill has not yet come to the floor for a vote. And with time running short in the session, prospects for passage are uncertain.
On the issue of drug reimportation, the House and Senate passed differing provisions last July as part of an agriculture spending bill.
Rep. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent and a leading proponent of one version of the bill, says the increased competition could lower the prices of drugs by 30 to 50 percent.
The pharmaceutical industry opposes the legislation.
But Gephardt urged the GOP leadership last week to accelerate efforts at a compromise, and Hastert's spokesman, John Feehery, said the speaker would support a bill "as long as we have the proper safeguards."