updated 3/14/2006 3:35:24 PM ET 2006-03-14T20:35:24

President Bush on Tuesday defended Medicare’s new prescription drug benefit as a good deal for seniors and taxpayers alike but acknowledged that the program was plagued by problems in its early days.

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“Anytime Washington passes a new law, sometimes the transition period can be interesting,” the president said.

There are high political stakes in the debate over the drug benefit. Older Americans traditionally account for a greater share of the electorate in midterm elections than in presidential years, and have recently trended Republican.

Democrats hope to make the program a liability for Republicans in the November congressional elections. Democrats voted overwhelmingly against creation of the program known as Medicare Part D, in which private companies design and sell insurance plans offering prescription drug coverage.

The program began on Jan. 1, and was hampered from the start by confusion and errors that left large numbers of seniors at least temporarily denied coverage. The administration launched an intensive effort to fix these difficulties. In general, the Democrats favor an alternative approach with benefits provided directly by the government rather than through private companies.

Bush spoke in the gymnasium of the Canandaigua Academy, the local public high school in this middle-class, conservative-leaning western New York community. Afterward, he was to visit Ferris Hills at West Lake, a residence for seniors.

Bush encouraged seniors to sign up for the prescription drug benefit.

“If you’re a low income senior the government’s going to pick up a significant portion of your tab,” he said. “If you’re an average income senior, you’re going to see your drug bills cut in half. If you’re a taxpayer the anticipated costs are significantly lower than we thought.

“It’s working,” Bush said. “It makes a lot of sense.”

The White House said Medicare spending is projected to be 20% lower for 2006 than was estimated last summer, because of competition and wider availability of generic drugs. The average premium for seniors for prescription drug coverage also is lower than projected — $25 instead of $37.

“I’m telling you, it’s a good opportunity for you,” the president said.

Americans United, a group with close ties to congressional Democrats, is completing plans for a campaign-style attack on the new benefit.

“We believe that we can fan the smoldering embers of discontent ... into a firestorm of opposition,” says a memo that sets out a strategy modeled on last year’s successful drive to doom Bush’s Social Security legislation.

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