House Leader Warned White House of Defect in Bill Affecting Medicaid Transfers

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that after consulting with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) about a problem with passage of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (DRA), House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) asked that President Bush delay signing the measure, but the White House refused.

According to the Journal, Hastert was informed of problems with the legislation only hours before the White House signing ceremony. He and Frist met and agreed that the signing should be delayed until the problem could be addressed by the House and Senate.

Hastert's chief of staff, Scott Palmer, told the Journal that when the speaker and Frist went to the White House for the February 8 signing ceremony, they expected only a "mock ceremony." Instead, on the advice of White House attorneys, Bush went ahead and signed the actual measure. ("Watchdog's Suit Could Threaten Budget Cutbacks," WSJ, March 22, 2006; available online by subscription only.)

Among various cuts in social programs, the DRA would place severe new restrictions on the ability of the elderly to transfer assets before qualifying for Medicaid coverage of nursing home care. The measure barely passed both houses of Congress. But the Constitution requires that before a bill can be enacted into law by the president, it must pass both the House and Senate in identical form. Due to a clerk's substantive change as the legislation passed between houses, the president signed legislation that was passed by the Senate but not the House. (For details, click here.)

In a March 22 letter to the president, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Congressman Henry Waxman, senior Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, ask for "a full explanation of what you and your senior staff knew about the fundamental constitutional problem in the Deficit Reduction Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 2005 when you signed the legislation on February 8, 2006."

As previously reported, the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen has filed suit in federal court charging that the DRA is invalid. Alabama ElderLawAnswers member attorney Jim Zeigler also has lodged a suit challenging the DRA's constitutionality.

"[T]he budget consequences would be huge if the court were to rule against the administration," the Wall Street Journal writes. "Moreover, by keeping the controversy alive, the case could further damage the image of Republican stewardship of Congress, already under attack for corruption and record budget deficits."