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Bush Takes Agenda On The Road

President Bush speaking a day after his State of the Union address took his medicare reform message to Grand Rapids, Mich. Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2003. Calling Medicare a ``binding commitment of a caring society,'' Bush asked Congress to spend $400 billion over the next 10 years to offer the elderly a prescription drug benefit under Medicare that would send many into private insurance plans
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President Bush traveled to Michigan on Wednesday, ostensibly to promote the domestic policy agenda he outlined in last night's State of the Union address.

But as usual, the subject turned quickly to Iraq, with the president rejecting calls to let weapons inspectors contain Saddam Hussein and warning that Iraq could join with terrorists to attack America "and never leave a fingerprint behind."

As his administration prepares to make public details of Iraq's alleged violations of U.N. resolutions, Mr. Bush said: "In my judgment you don't contain Saddam Hussein. You don't hope that therapy will somehow change his evil mind."

Mr. Bush sought to answer questions by war opponents and doubting allies about why a war against Iraq may be necessary in the war against terror. He called Saddam "a danger not only to the countries in the region."

In his remarks in Michigan, Mr. Bush said that "because of al Qaeda connections, because of his history, he's a danger to the American people, and we've got to deal with him before it is too late."

The rest of the president's visit was focused on his plan for $400 billion in new Medicare spending over the next decade, which he said would make sure the program "fulfills its promise to our seniors" by adding flexibility and offering a prescription drug benefit for the first time.

The broad overhaul of the 38-year-old program that Mr. Bush envisions would be a huge undertaking.

But introducing market mechanisms to Medicare — by increasing the reliance on cheaper private health plans to treat the elderly — is seen by the administration as a way to help pay for the costly drug coverage long desired by both parties and still absorb the aging Baby Boomer population that threatens to bankrupt the program by 2030.

"Medicare has been used as a political football," Mr. Bush said. "It's old — it's important, but it hasn't changed."

Mr. Bush urged lawmakers to "put aside all of the politics and make sure the Medicare system fulfills its promise to our seniors."

"This is a commitment America must make," he said.

For the traditional journey outside Washington the morning after the State of the Union address, Mr. Bush chose the most conservative corner of political battleground Michigan, a state he lost in 2000 but where he was celebrated by eight standing ovations. Before his address, he met behind closed doors at a hospital, Spectrum Health, with a patient, medical professionals and a business owner.

Hundreds of demonstrators lined the street outside and chanted anti-war slogans. A smaller cluster stood on a nearby corner to show support. "Let's Roll — never forget 9/11," one sign said.

The central feature of the president's Medicare plan is adding a drug benefit for older Americans.

Administration officials had said earlier that the plan would offer prescription drug benefits and catastrophic illness coverage to seniors as inducements to give up their fee-for-service Medicare benefits and enroll in private plans.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., promised quick work on the overhaul.

But one key Senate Republican quickly challenged any effort to condition a prescription drug benefit.

"I am concerned ... that the president's focus on ways to reform Medicare could hamper our efforts to pass comprehensive prescription coverage," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.

Some Democrats and consumer groups were harshly critical, saying such a proposal looks to them like an attempt to coerce seniors into private plans that deny them the doctors of their choice.

Amid the opposition, there were signs that the White House's proposal was back on the drawing board.

The Michigan event was originally billed as the rollout for the plan. But Wednesday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the plan would come later, only specifying a time frame of "early this year." Other officials cautioned that the final details were still in flux while negotiations continued with key lawmakers.

"We're not even close to understanding what the president is going to propose," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

Mr. Bush himself offered no details, only a broad outline of his goals.

"Seniors who are happy with the current Medicare system should stay in the current Medicare system," Bush said Wednesday. "If you like the way things are you shouldn't change. However, Medicare must be more flexible. Medicare must include prescription drugs. Medicare must be available to seniors in a variety of forms."

Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said the plan, as originally described, "will privatize Medicare and hold seniors hostage to HMOs."

"He says he wants to help seniors afford prescription drugs, then he proposes a plan to coerce seniors into HMOs to get prescription coverage," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.