Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2003 | 11:05 a.m.
President Bush, in his first visit to Las Vegas as president, praised the Senate today for passing the massive overhaul of Medicare.
The president called the overhaul a major victory for seniors and the nation.
"Medicare will be modern and it will be strong," he told an audience at Spring Valley Hospital.
"Seniors with the greatest needs will get the greatest help," Bush said.
The overhaul gives seniors more options and more choices, he said. "We had a system that didn't work."
Air Force One touched down at McCarran International Airport just before 9:30 a.m. today, marking Bush's first visit to the state as president.
As he started his 3 1/2-hour stay in Las Vegas, Bush was met by Gov. Kenny Guinn, Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt, Attorney General Brian Sandoval, Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., Las Vegas Fire Chief David Washington, members of the Latin Chamber of Commerce and Joe Cortez, a boxing referee and member of the state nursing board.
He also shook hands and posed for photos with Las Vegas resident Maria Konold-Soto, who was honored for her volunteer work with the Medical Reserve Corps to recruit medical workers for emergency situations.
Bush was then to go to The Venetian for a fund-raiser before leaving about 1 p.m.
Bush was expected to meet some criticism over Yucca Mountain, which he approved as the nation's nuclear waste dump. The volcanic ridge sits 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, and the state has a handful of lawsuits in federal court trying to stop the project.
Before the president's plane landed, Guinn said he wasn't going to discuss Yucca because there wasn't anything to discuss at this point. "We're doing quite well in court," he said.
About 200 to 300 people were in front of The Venetian this morning to protest Bush's visit.
Many held signs that said "No Nuke Dump in Nevada," and others held signs that said "Promises Broken." Critics said Bush broke a promise he made in Nevada during the 2000 campaign when he said he would make a determination on Yucca Mountain based on sound science.
Jackie Johnson, a surgical nurse at a Las Vegas hospital and a member of the Service Employees International Union, joined about 45 union members who waved signs and chanted as the president's motorcade passed by.
Johnson said the Medicare changes proposed by the Bush administration and coupled with changes to worker overtime policies would mean "more work, less help, sicker patients."
"We need to study the broken system before making changes so fast," she said.
The Senate on Tuesday approved sweeping changes to Medicare, including a new prescription drug benefit for 40 million older and disabled Americans. The vote sends the bill to Bush, who has said he is eager to sign it into law.
The president stumbled as he left the plane but caught himself before falling.
"He promised us he would not pick Yucca Mountain unless all the science was in," said Peggy Maze Johnson, executive director of Citizen Alert, a Las Vegas-based advocacy group.
She organized a demonstration at The Venetian and planned to distribute copies of a May 3, 2000, letter from Bush, then the governor of Texas, telling Guinn that as president, he "would not sign legislation that would send nuclear waste to any proposed site unless it's been deemed scientifically safe."
Bush and Congress picked the Yucca Mountain site with the Energy Department still addressing 293 scientific questions.
"I think it was a done deal before he ever took office," said Marsha Forkos, Sierra Club southern Nevada group chairwoman and another protest organizer. "We want to make him aware that Nevada is not going to just roll over and play dead."
Denise Kelley, vice president of the Nevada Alliance for Retired Americans, said her group that represents 7,000 retirees in the state planned afternoon news conferences in Las Vegas and Reno to blame Bush for breaking promises to Americans on Medicare and prescription drug coverage.
"What happens when you have a prescription that's $279 for a 90-day supply, and you're on a pension?" asked Kelley, 77, a retired American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees member who is on Medicare.
"The drug companies are bleeding us dry," she said, "and they're going to continue to do so under the Medicare bill."
The president was due to fly to Scottsdale, Ariz., after visiting Las Vegas and then back to Crawford, Texas, to spend Thanksgiving with his family.
Bush didn't visit Las Vegas when he was campaigning in 2000, but did visit Lake Tahoe to raise $300,000 for his campaign and $240,000 for the Republican Party. ---
Las Vegas newsman Adam Goldman and Reno newswoman Sandra Chereb contributed to this report.