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Wicker tackles Medicare, mortgages and more during luncheon

If interim U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker (photo right) is ever struck by a meteorite, doctors had better hang onto their wallets.

The Republican, speaking at the Stennis Capitol Press Corps luncheon July 7, said the chances of the federal health insurance program Medicare undergoing cuts in services are as likely as an asteroid blindsiding him.

Wicker was chastised by his opponent, former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, recently for Wicker’s voting to halt the progress of a bill that would have prevented reduced reimbursements to physicians who treat Medicare patients. Even so, Wicker reiterated to the crowd gathered at Jackson’s University Club that the program would be fully funded eventually. “Not one single person in Congress wants that,” Wicker said of the possibility doctors would see their reimbursements slashed.

Musgrove is scheduled to speak during the August 4 Stennis Capitol Press Corps luncheon.

‘Political brinkmanship’

Wicker, who is filling the unexpired term of retired Sen. Trent Lott, accused congressional Democrats of “political brinksmanship” in the Medicare debate in and said it was an effort to score points in a crucial election year.

“There’s no reason for brinksmanship or to threaten elderly Americans (who rely on Medicare),” Wicker said. “We’ve never gone past the date doctor cuts were being made. It’s being done because there’s an election in four months. In the end, the chances of doctors facing a permanent 10% cut in their reimbursements are about the same as the chances of me being hit by a meteorite this afternoon.”

The remark drew laughter from the 60 or so people gathered to hear Wicker, but Musgrove, through a statement released shortly after the vote, did not sound amused.

“Rather than protecting Medicare and Mississippi seniors, Roger Wicker sided with the private insurance companies,” Musgrove said.

The Senate was scheduled to take up the issue again July 9, but had yet to cast a vote by the time the Mississippi Business Journal went to press.

Wicker touched on a number of other topics in his 30-minute speech last week, ranging from the bipartisan coalition that negotiated the recent economic stimulus package, a defense spending bill and pending legislation that will appoint an independent regulatory agency to oversee Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, government-funded mortgage brokers.

All bets are off

When Gov. Haley Barbour appointed Wicker last winter to fill Lott’s spot, it was generally assumed that Wicker would have little trouble retaining the seat permanently. Lott and fellow Republican Thad Cochran have established a deep GOP legacy, and Wicker seemed to fill that role with ease.

Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, says that with Democrat Barack Obama at the top of the presidential ticket, and with the Democratic turnout expected to set decades-old records, all bets are off.

“Given the times we’re in, the Republican Party is under siege,” Wiseman said. “There are a number of (congressional) seats around the country that are questionable that wouldn’t normally be that way.”

The brief skirmish between Barbour and Attorney General Jim Hood over when the Wicker-Musgrove election would be held — Hood favored a March election; Barbour wanted it coupled with November’s general election — ended with the Mississippi Supreme Court siding with Barbour. It was initially hailed as a victory for Barbour and the Wicker camp, but Wiseman says it could end up costing both in the long run. Instead of running a campaign for three months, Musgrove will have had nearly 11 months to formulate a strategy and raise money.

“I don’t get much right, but I said when (Wicker) was appointed that I didn’t understand why Barbour wanted to couple those races. But again, I really don’t believe that anybody thought Barack Obama would win the Democratic nomination. That is really going to change the face of who votes.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

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