Democrats hit GOP on support for Medicare cuts

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat, accused Republicans of putting seniors and military families at risk by siding with President Bush against a measure to prevent Medicare cuts.

Durbin, D-Ill., used a Saturday national radio address to call on Republicans to back the bill to stave off a 10.6 percent cut in Medicare payments to doctors.

It passed the House overwhelmingly last week in defiance of Bush's threat to veto it, but it fell just one vote short of the 60 it needed to advance in the Senate, with most Republicans voting "no."

"It's time for the Republican senators who are filibustering this measure to put our seniors and our military families ahead of private insurance companies and let the Senate pass this bill as soon as possible," Durbin said.

Bush and Senate Republicans don't like the bill because it includes offsetting cuts to insurance companies that use Medicare money to offer private health care coverage to about 20 percent of seniors.

The lower fees to doctors went into effect July 1, but Medicare officials are holding off processing new claims, hoping that Congress will act within the next few weeks to restore the higher payments. Many health plans, including the government program covering military personnel, tie their payment rates to Medicare's.

In a letter to Democratic leaders on Thursday, Republicans called for a monthlong extension to buy time to write a bill Bush would sign.

"The millions of beneficiaries who depend on Medicare and the providers who treat them are not political pawns in a partisan game, and Congress should not treat them that way," said the letter, signed by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader.

Democratic leaders intend to use the impending deadline to pressure Republicans, particularly those facing steep re-election challenges, to switch their votes or be accused of hurting seniors and others. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., plans a second vote on the measure as early as next week.

The Medicare bill is just one area in which Republicans and Democrats are battling over spending offsets. Democrats insist on pairing legislation to extend expiring tax cuts with tax increases elsewhere to prevent a rise in the deficit, and Republicans have steadfastly opposed such hikes.

McConnell offered to accept some tax increases if Democrats would agree to reduce spending on domestic programs.

Reid quickly rejected the proposal. In a statement, he said Republicans were choosing to "cut programs to help working families, seniors and veterans in need of health care" to protect multinational companies that would benefit from extending the tax cuts.

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