WASHINGTON -- One side on defense, the other on offense, House Republicans and Democrats are jousting over Medicare and Social Security, issues of concern to older voters who are likely to figure prominently in midterm elections.
The GOP went first, unveiling legislation to offer prescription drug coverage to the nation's 39 million Medicare recipients.
The bill marks ''the most significant improvement to Medicare since its conception,'' said Rep. Bill Thomas, announcing that in addition to prescription coverage, it would provide seniors with a physical exam when they enroll in Medicare.
But at a news conference, the California Republican shed no light on a recent struggle within the GOP leadership, including one session in which Thomas, Speaker Dennis Hastert and others took turns storming from the meeting room.
GOP sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that Thomas, backed by the White House, sought to include changes in the way Medicare operates. Most members of the leadership feared that would require vulnerable incumbents to cast risky votes in Congress and face Democratic television attacks at home.
In the end, the political concerns prevailed. Thomas' proposals were reduced to four temporary ''demonstration projects'' in which the traditional fee for service coverage would compete with HMOs in areas of the country to be determined.
Already, Democrats are attacking these proposals as aimed at ''turning Medicare over to the private insurance market,'' with higher costs resulting. And in a further sign of Republican skittishness, even those four projects may drop from the legislation.
Democrats take their turn today, trumpeting their call for a pre-election debate on proposed changes in Social Security. President Bush came to office advocating a plan to let younger workers invest a portion of their payroll taxes individually, and a presidential commission has outlined three options to implement the plan.
Fearing a political backlash, House Republican leaders want no debate until the election is safely past. Equally eager to have an airing, Democrats have filed a legislative petition to bring the issue to the floor. Their effort is doomed to failure, since no Republican is likely to support it, but Democrats intend to use it to bludgeon the GOP on the issue.
''It's probably the most important issue that's in front of us, next to the Department of Homeland Security, and we ought to be taking it up,'' House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt said Tuesday in an interview.
Otherwise, he said, if Republicans hold the House and win the Senate in November, they will use their majority in 2003 to do ''what they've been saying for the last three years they want to do, which is privatize Social Security.''
At their core, the party's tactics are aimed at winning the allegiance of senior citizens, who often vote in disproportionately large numbers in midterm elections.
Voters 65 and older accounted for 19 percent of all votes cast in 1998. They accounted for 14 percent of all votes cast in congressional races in 2000.
In the 1998 midterm elections, held in the shadow of impeachment proceedings against President Clinton, Republicans won the senior vote, 54 percent to 43 percent. Two years ago, Democratic congressional candidates got 51 percent, to 47 percent for the GOP.
Recent polling gives Republicans reason to be nervous, at least when it comes to Medicare and Social Security. A survey taken for Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., reported that Democrats are favored, 48-34, on their handling of Social Security. On drugs and health care, the Democratic advantage was 48-31.
Given those polls, as well as President Bush's popularity and the support Republicans enjoy on issues of terrorism and defense, Democrats are eager to press their advantage on domestic issues where they hold the upper hand.
Even as they maneuver, each side claims the moral ground and accuses the other of playing politics.
''Their bill is designed to solve their political dilemma of sounding like they care about senior citizens while simultaneously draining the Social Security and Medicare trust funds to pay for huge tax breaks that benefit their wealthy contributors,'' charged Rep. Fortney Stark, D-Calif.
Said Thomas: ''I think the worst thing you could say about any politicians is that they are cynical enough to wave in front of seniors a message that was designed solely for a bumper sticker.''
David Espo is AP's chief congressional correspondent.
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