Last week, the House passed a farm bill that would bust the federal budget in order to cater to the needs of a powerful constituency. Within days, seniors demanding prescription drug coverage had their turn. The elderly, like farmers, are learning the secret of how to exert leverage over the political system: Don't get caught up in ideology.

Farmers ended up getting what they wanted—a House vote in favor of restoring the price-support system and boosting farm subsidies. What about seniors? A lot of promises were made about prescription drug coverage during the 2000 campaign. "Among the folks who ran for president and Congress," Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., observed, "about one out of every five of our TV ads was about doing something about prescription drugs. Here we are two years later, and we still haven't done anything about prescription drugs."

Farmers are swing voters. They vote their interests and are loyal neither to party nor to ideology. With hotly contested Senate races this year in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and South Dakota, neither party wants to alienate the farm vote. That's why the May 2 House vote on the farm bill was amazingly bipartisan. Two-thirds of the Republicans and two-thirds of the Democrats voted for it.

Shouldn't seniors get the same treatment? Miller thinks so: "Surely our elders are as deserving of our time and representation as peanuts and sugar and chickens."

Well, it's happening. House Republicans have unveiled a proposal to give seniors prescription drug coverage under Medicare. Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., declared, "House Republicans believe firmly that no senior should be forced to choose between putting food on the table or paying the rent or buying the medicines they need now."

One hour later, Senate Democrats unveiled their own proposal. "Democrats are going to be pursuing this very aggressively," promised Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D. Meanwhile, House Democrats and a bipartisan group of Senate moderates are working on other prescription drug proposals.

President Bush has a plan, too—and Democrats are making the White House proposal a campaign issue. The Democratic National Committee has released a campaign video that shows Bush promising in 2000 to "help all people with prescription drugs." The Democratic ad then says, "By his own estimate, Bush leaves out more than two-thirds of seniors in need of prescription drug coverage."

According to a Republican campaign memo released last month, "Republicans passing a prescription drug benefit would go a long way to leaving Democrats with very little on the table to try to use against us." The memo, from Public Opinion Strategies, suggests that GOP incumbents should target seniors via government-paid franked mail. "Remember, Mr. Frank Mail's older brother is Mr. Senior Mail," the document advises.

Why are seniors suddenly at the center of the 2002 campaign? They've become a swing voting bloc. In 1992, according to the network exit polls, seniors voted for Bill Clinton by 11 points (50 percent for Clinton, 39 percent for George H.W. Bush). Seniors favored Clinton by 7 points in 1996 (Clinton 50, Bob Dole 43). By 2000, the senior vote was virtually tied: Al Gore received 50 percent to 47 percent for George W. Bush.

In House elections, seniors have swung back and forth. A strong GOP showing among seniors in 1998 is credited with keeping the House in Republican hands. That was when Clinton's behavior had offended seniors. In the 2000 House vote, Democrats outpolled Republicans among seniors nationwide—but by only 2 points (50 to 48 percent).

Before the 1990s, seniors were reliably Democratic. But over the past 10 years, many voters of the Depression generation have died. What's left is a gigantic interest group, guaranteed to grow as Baby Boomers begin to reach retirement age in 2010.

Seniors are turning this year's midterm election into a bidding war for their votes: On the table are a Bush prescription drug plan that would cost $190 billion over 10 years, a House GOP plan that would cost up to $350 billion, and a Senate Democratic plan that would cost $400 billion to $500 billion. Democrats argue that Republicans really don't want a bill and are merely looking for cover to keep angry seniors from flooding the polls this November. Republicans claim that Democrats are promoting grandiose plans because they, too, really don't want a bill. Democrats, according to Republicans, just want to blame Republicans if nothing passes.

Miller warns against playing politics with seniors. "I am not interested in merely proposing a prescription drug benefit," he said. "I am interested in passing a prescription drug benefit. And I mean passing it before Election Day, and hopefully even before the August recess. Anything short of that will be failure."

Back in 1996, Congress passed the highly ideological "Freedom to Farm" bill, which eliminated government price supports and made farmers more dependent on market forces. Then the farm market collapsed. So last week, Congress voted to repudiate the 1996 bill and bail farmers out. The goal for seniors is to remove the ideology from issues such as prescription drug coverage and make them tests of responsiveness: Is the government with us or against us?

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