SUSAN DENTZER: Today's hearing over the nomination of Tommy Thompson to head the Department of Health and Human Services began with bipartisan praise of the Wisconsin governor's skills. Members of the Senate Finance Committee lauded his record as a true compassionate conservative who made reforms he undertook in Wisconsin as a model for the nation.
SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER: I think you and I are the only two on this panel who have been governors before. And I trust governors because they have to deal with things as they are, not as they wish they would be.
SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: I frankly can't think of a more appropriate person to lead the department than you, somebody who has literally rewritten the book on delivering governmental assistance. You know, when we were working on welfare and I well remember we looked at your innovative program, "Wisconsin Works." It became the blueprint for welfare reform here at the federal level.
SUSAN DENTZER: Thompson then laid out his agenda for leading the huge department. He said his top priority was reforming Medicare, including adding a prescription drug benefit for its elderly and disabled enrollees.
GOV. TOMMY THOMPSON: Any organization that does business the same way it did 35 years ago is obsolete. As the baby boom generation approaches retirement, even greater demands will be placed on Medicare. The National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare made significant progress on addressing this issue. That is a good place for us to start.
SUSAN DENTZER: To begin, Thompson said he would push President- elect Bush's plan to channel federal funds to states so they could help low-income seniors buy drugs. But here, he quickly ran into objections from some Senators.
SEN. JOHN BREAUX: I think that this quite candidly is viewed as a political problem by President Bush, because it is very clear that during the campaign, he talked in terms of a block grant to the states on prescription drugs that would go into effect very early while we worked on Medicare reform. I think that more and more, members of Congress in both parties are looking at that concept and saying, "look, it's going to take us just as long to do that as it will to do Medicare reform with prescription drugs," that there are many states, secondly, that don't have the money to participate in it, my state being one. And thirdly, that we shouldn't be creating a prescription drug program for poor people, but for all people.
GOV. TOMMY THOMPSON: Let me just respond very quickly, Senator Breaux. You know that I have found that George W. Bush is a very principled individual, and he believes very much that what he said in the campaign, he's got to adhere to. He believes very strongly that he has to introduce a block grant proposal because he wants to make sure that if nothing else passes, that there are people out there that will be able to get prescription drugs. Once it's introduced, if we're able to come together, as you indicated to me last night when we were discussing this, Senator-- and I appreciate the meeting-- if we're able to come together and come up with a comprehensive Medicare reform with a prescription drug, I think all of us are going to be very appreciative, and I think the American people are going to be very well served.
SEN. JOHN BREAUX: In other words, you won't get real mad at us if we don't pass it?
GOV. TOMMY THOMPSON: If you can pass a comprehensive Medicare reform with prescription drugs, I can fairly much assure you he will be not mad, he will be very delighted.
SUSAN DENTZER: Some Senators also pressed Thompson to do more for the estimated 43 million Americans without health insurance. They urged a broader approach than Bush proposed at the campaign, and even at the expense of devoting more of the looming budget surplus to solve the problem.
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: There are people who cannot get access to the institutions, who go to sleep at night not knowing what to do with their child if they awake during the night with a dreaded disease. They live in fear of cost and access. That is not a system that is worthy of this country. And if once technology was an excuse for not helping people, then it was cost. With the largest surplus not only in American history, but in the history of any government, that is no longer an excuse.
SUSAN DENTZER: Finally, the Senators noted that they would have to work with Thompson on reauthorizing the 1996 welfare reform law.
SEN. PHIL GRAMM: As you know, in this Congress, we will have to reauthorize the welfare reform bill. You would think it would be easy. President Clinton, who vetoed it initially and who fought it every step of the way, now claims it is the great legacy of his administration. Everybody in Congress is now for welfare reform, but I just would say that I suspect that reauthorizing it, strengthening it, building on what we did and not backing away from the commitment we made is going to be a very difficult challenge.
SUSAN DENTZER: Thompson's confirmation hearing continues tomorrow before another Senate panel. The appointment is expected to pass both committees and the full Senate.