WASHINGTON - The nation's capital erupted in an orgy of bipartisan backslapping last Tuesday as President Clinton and Republican leaders celebrated their deal to balance the federal budget by the year 2002.
"We have put America's fiscal house in order again," a grinning Clinton proclaimed in a ceremony on the White House south lawn. On Capitol Hill, Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) called it a "new era of freedom."
The Dow Jones Industrial Index rocketed 53 points to a new record at news of the deal that slashes Medicare and Medicaid by $130 billion and uses the savings to lavish $94 billion in tax cuts - mostly for the rich. It includes sharp cuts in the capital gains and estate taxes.
Later that day, 800 senior citizens, some in wheelchairs, staged a rally in front of the White House holding placards that proclaimed, "What's the hurry?" and "Hands off my Medicare."
The seniors, members of a dozen AFL-CIO unions, gathered near a giant cardboard cake in Lafayette Park to observe the 32nd anniversary of the enactment of Medicare. They crossed Pennsylvania Avenue to picket the White House to protest Clinton's supersonic speed in ramrodding the budget deal through Congress virtually sight-unseen.
Just at sunset, Clinton's enormous black limousine zoomed up Pennsylvania Avenue surrounded by motorcycle outriders and Secret Service vehicles, red, white and blue lights flashing like a Christmas tree. Clinton's motorcade did not even slow as it roared past the pickets.
Steve Protulis, executive director of the National Council of Senior Citizens, told the crowd, "When politicians are on a honeymoon, hold on to your wallets. When they say they are going to 'compromise,' I get worried."
A deal was made the other night, he said. "We don't know what was in the deal. If it's a rotten deal, they are going to pay for it. If it's a good deal, what's the hurry. Why not let us read what's in it and then sign it in September?"
He had a warning: "We're here to remind Congress and the president that Medicare is more popular than any politician. Those who touch Medicare won't be in office very much longer."
Protulis pointed to a blown-up photocopy of a Washington Post headline, "Robust Economy Could Balance the Budget by 1998."
"The economy is growing quickly enough to balance the budget without touching Medicare," Protulis said. "Now they are 'reforming' Medicare beyond the $115 billion we have already given up. Why do they keep messing with Medicare? Because they were always opposed to it. They are still balancing the budget on the backs of the seniors and giving the savings to the rich."
Tim Foley, an aide to United Auto Workers (UAW) President Steve Yokich, said, "The same evil forces that want to privatize Social Security also want to tear apart Medicare. We're not going to let them shred the safety net in this country - and that is what this is all about."
Sam Simmons, president of the National Caucus on the Black Aged, cited victories in forcing the GOP leadership to drop raising Medicare eligibility to age 67. "If they did that, most Black men would be dead before they are eligible for Medicare," he said.
They were also forced to drop a means test for Medicare Part B. But the decision to approve Medical savings accounts for the affluent he said, is a "stinking thing." He warned that the budget deal inflicts deep funding cuts for hospitals that serve the poor.
"These are licensed hospitals that serve millions of people," he told the World. "If you shut them down, where are these people going to go for care?"
Simmons said some groups are hailing the handful of positives such as $24 billion in Medicaid to cover half the children without Medical insurance and restoration of benefits for some legal immigrants.
"There are some good things in it but it is loaded with bad things," he said. The Steel Workers' retiree organization, SOAR, brought a busload to the rally from Pittsburgh. SOAR Director Oliver Montgomery told the World, "This is a great show of solidarity on the anniversary of Medicare. The battle to protect the welfare of seniors is not over. The right wing has frightened us so that we are afraid of even talking about the real solution - a national health care system that protects everyone. We should never back off of that fight."
The UAW brought busloads of retirees from Newark, Delaware and Baltimore. William Pitt, an African American auto worker, told this reporter he worked 42 years at GM's Broening Highway plant in Baltimore. I asked him to comment on reports that GM may rake in $10 billion in profits this year.
"It's outrageous!" he exclaimed. "With that kind of money, the politicians have a place to get the tax revenues if they want to. Instead they take it from us." Floyd Green, a retired member of UAW Local 1183 in Newark, Del. said he worked 35 years for the Chrysler Corporation.
"They keep hollering about the deficit but then we find out they have been dipping into the Social Security Trust Fund. If they would pay back all they owe, and collect taxes from the people with all the money, Social Security would have the biggest kitty in the world."
Removed from the package after strong grassroots pressure was an amendment that would have permitted employers to reclassify millions of workers as "independent contractors" without workmen's compensation, jobless benefits and other protections.
Michelle Nemo, president of the Palm Beach-Treasure Coast AFL-CIO in Florida hailed the victory.
"They stripped it out of this tax package," she said by telephone, "but we have to watch very closely that they don't attach it to some other bill. If it is enacted, it will open the floodgates for employers all over the country to reclassify their workers as 'contractors.'"
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