Vice president on offensive against GOP leaders in Congress

WASHINGTON - Democrat Al Gore ripped into the GOP-led House and Senate as a ''do-nothing-for-people'' Congress straitjacketed by special interests. He challenged Republican presidential rival George W. Bush to spur lawmakers to act.

''America could be just one phone call away'' from HMO reforms, prescription drug benefits, environmental protections and a minimum-wage increase, Gore said in an interview Saturday with The Associated Press.

Republican bills to enhance the rights of managed-care patients and help seniors pay for prescription drugs should not be mistaken for real reforms, Gore said. Those measures, he said, are ''backed by tens of millions campaign contributions from big drug companies and ... strongly backed by big insurance companies and HMOs.''

If he were president, Gore said, he would veto those GOP measures. Gore and other Democrats have offered more sweeping proposals for a patients' bill of rights and Medicare coverage of prescription drugs.

The vice president spoke by telephone from Air Force Two as he and wife Tipper headed for ''time to ourselves'' at a lakeside cabin near his family home in Carthage, Tenn.

A campaign stop Monday in New Britain, Conn., timed to coincide with Congress' return from its July Fourth break, will launch Gore's weeklong drive to tie Bush, the Republican congressional leadership and special interests into one menacing lump.

Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett laughed at the strategy.

''This is an amazing display of weak leadership for the self-admitted second most powerful man in the United States. ... He's calling on the sitting governor of Texas to get done the work that he and the president can't get done,'' Bartlett said.

Gore had intended to focus his presidential campaign this week on welfare-to-work initiatives. He scrapped that agenda days ago in order to capitalize on issues he sees as winners for the Democratic ticket - particularly so long as Republicans stall action on them.

President Clinton recently has staked out patients rights as his ground for attack against Republicans as he campaigns for Democratic candidates.

The legislation is stuck in negotiations between the House, which passed a Democratic bill last year, and the Senate, whose legislation would only apply to about one-third of the nation's health-plan subscribers and offers no enhanced patient right to sue a health maintenance organization.

''It all comes down to one phone call. Will George Bush call (Senate Majority Leader) Trent Lott and tell him to stop blocking this bill? One phone call,'' Gore said.

His campaign compiled more than 10 pages documenting a link among Bush, Congress and special interests.

GOP committees and candidates have taken more than $8.6 million in contributions from ''anti-patients' bill of rights forces'' since 1997, the Gore campaign contends. And Bush has accepted more than $1.4 million from the insurance industry, the campaign said, acknowledging that the figure does not sort out health companies from other insurance interests.

Business groups opposed to the $1-per-hour minimum-wage increase over two years, which Gore supports, contributed a total of $2.6 million to the GOP during 1997-98, Gore's campaign said.

Also, Bush has accepted $250,000 in campaign contributions from pharmaceutical companies and employees that have also given GOP campaign committees at least $6.2 million in the 2000 election cycle.

Bush and congressional Republicans have offered plans to make medicine more affordable for seniors but none so comprehensive as Gore's proposal for a universal Medicare benefit.

Gore also accused Republicans of holding environmental legislation ''hostage'' in order to protect polluters from being held liable under the Superfund law.

''Unfortunately, this do-nothing-for-people Congress is led by right-of-center Republicans who care more about entrenched special interests than working people,'' Gore said.

As for Bush, Gore said, ''his most powerful allies and backers are the same ones who are calling the tune for the Republican leadership. He has a responsibility to tell the leadership to do what's right for the American people.''

At a time when public opinion polls find Bush a widely likable candidate, Gore and his advisers privately yearn for the days when they could use the name and face of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to tar all Republicans.

Until recently, Gore still sprinkled speeches with references to Gingrich. On Saturday, aides distributed nearly 5,000 words of news clippings meant to show collusion between Bush, Mississippi's Lott and House leaders Dick Armey and Tom Delay, both from Texas.

Bush, campaigning as a fresh start from eight years of Clinton-Gore, has avoided a too-public association with the GOP team on Capitol Hill and his spokesman emphasized as much Saturday.

''Congress has a job to do and he's confident that they will. Obviously we monitor what's going on there like anybody else does, but Governor Bush is running his own campaign on his own ideas,'' Bartlett said.


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