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Republicans want $16 billion for children’s health in budget bill

July 21, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Congressional Republicans decided Monday to seek $16 billion through 2002 for children’s health-care programs, less than President Clinton would like. But they said the total could increase after talks with the White House over raising the cigarette tax.

GOP leaders mapping their budget-balancing bill also agreed among themselves to drop White House-opposed medical malpractice limits from the measure. But Republicans remained divided over a ground-breaking Senate plan for increasing Medicare costs for the most-affluent elderly and raising the eligibility age.

The decisions came as Republicans tried to forge a single GOP position on bills aimed at balancing the budget by 2002 while cutting taxes by roughly $135 billion. The Republican-controlled House and Senate approved similar versions of those bills and are now trying to iron out differences to present a unified front in bargaining with Clinton.

The GOP decision on children’s health care foreshadowed a clash with the White House, which has made expanding health insurance coverage for the young a top priority.

This May’s bipartisan budget agreement called for $16 billion for the effort, and the House approved that amount. The Senate voted for $24 billion, with the extra $8 billion coming from a 20-cents-per-pack increase in the tobacco tax.

The administration has said it would like more than $16 billion for the initiative but has avoided using a specific figure.

Asked about increasing the total for children’s health-care, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said, ``That’s got to be part of a bigger negotiation.″

Republicans also agreed to structure the children’s health program in a way likely to draw administration objections.

They proposed to let states spend 15 percent of their money on administration and direct health services _ payments to hospitals, for instance. The rest would have to be spent on insurance, and states could choose among several plans. The administration argues that states could use money targeted for direct services for unrelated functions, reducing the funds that would actually be used for children’s health.

Still unresolved were Senate-approved changes in Medicare that represent the highest-profile differences among Republicans.

The Senate voted to charge the most-affluent elderly higher monthly premiums, slowly raise the program’s eligibility age from 65 to 67, and charge $5 fees for home health-care visits. The House omitted such changes, and Republicans leery of angry elderly voters in effect decided Monday to throw that issue into the president’s lap.

``The senators felt strongly that they wanted to go back to him again and urge him to actually offer leadership, rather than being too timid,″ House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., told reporters.

On another issue the administration has emphasized, Republicans decided to allow only noncitizens already collecting welfare to stay on the rolls. The White House wants immigrants who are disabled in the future to become eligible.

In addition, GOP leaders agreed to drop $250,000 limits on many medical malpractice awards that the House had included in its budget-balancing measure, said participants who spoke on condition of anonymity. Though killing the proposal was a concession to the administration, it was considered minor since the provision was all but certain to die in the Senate, anyway.

Over the weekend, administration officials and chief congressional tax writers met twice but reported little progress. If anything, the White House complained that the two sides had moved backwards, saying Republicans were limiting the portion of the proposed $500-per-child tax credit that low-income workers could claim.

``In some respects, the movement last week was in the opposite direction from the direction needed for agreement,″ White House spokesman Mike McCurry told reporters.

Republicans were more upbeat, restating their goal of completing both bills by the Aug. 1 start of the lawmakers’ summer recess.

``We can do this,″ said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. ``It’s not helpful for people to go and say, `Woe is me.‴

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