The White House on Monday ruled out a one-year delay in the Medicare prescription drug benefit as a way of offsetting some of the costs of repairing Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the Gulf Coast.
The administration’s rejection of one of the chief ideas from fiscal conservatives for covering the tab for Katrina marked another example of how difficult it will be to spend billions of dollars for hurricane relief without increasing the federal deficit.
Postponing the drug benefit, which is to take effect Jan. 1, was one of the most widely discussed options on Capitol Hill to cover Katrina’s costs. Two years ago, the House passed the expensive program by only 5 votes after the Republican leadership kept voting open almost three extra hours to twist the arms of the reluctant rank and file.
A senior aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leader of the faction that wants to offset the costs of hurricane relief with cuts in other spending, said that McCain would support postponing the drug benefit, which he voted against in the first place.
“That drug benefit barely passed,” the aide said. “No fiscal conservative could say with a straight face that was a good thing to do.”
A House Republican leadership aide said the leadership was unlikely to support a delay in the program after having pulled out all the stops to win its passage.
The White House, which championed the drug benefit, would have nothing to do with proposals by McCain or other conservative lawmakers to delay it by a year. “That is an important benefit for our seniors that will save them significant money on their prescription drugs,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters.
Delaying it would offset a substantial share of the Katrina cleanup costs. Budget analyst Brian M. Riedl of the conservative Heritage Foundation said postponing the drug benefit would save $40 billion next year, against an estimated $200 billion in hurricane costs.
Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, reported Monday that $75 billion worth of hurricane-related funding had become law or been passed by the Senate.
In addition to the $10.5-billion and $51.8-billion emergency funding bills that President Bush has signed into law, spending is in the pipeline for tax relief, education aid and other assistance to hurricane victims. Bush is expected to submit another, even larger request for relief funding in the next week or so.
After the drug benefit, another target of funds that could be cut is the highway bill that Bush signed in August. Riedl said the bill, in addition to funding federal highway construction and repair, set aside $25 billion over five years for 6,400 projects sought by lawmakers for their home states or districts.
Times staff writer Warren Vieth contributed to this report.