Congress charmed by first lady but unswayed

September 29, 1993|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Armed with a stack of facts and more than a -- of charm, Hillary Rodham Clinton captivated two House committees yesterday but failed to conquer lawmakers' objections to her husband's health care reform plan.

Despite an occasionally gushy reception, the first lady's first formal appearance as the administration's top lobbyist for the president's health care legislation seemed to sharpen the battle lines for the long siege that lies ahead.

She provided only a few new details, including an assurance that Maryland can continue to operate its own system for setting hospital rates and controlling costs, and a one-word comment on whether the president would consider putting off action on the most controversial parts of his program until after next year's elections. "No," she said.

But after two brisk hours before a standing-room-only crowd at the House Ways and Means Committee hearing yesterday morning, normally gruff Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., called her a "marvelous witness" and said: "I think in the very near future, the president will be known as your husband. 'Who's that fellow? That's Hillary's husband.' "

Yesterday's performances were the first of five Mrs. Clinton will make before congressional committees this week to launch the health care reform proposal on its legislative odyssey. Sometime next month, Congress is expected to formally receive the Clinton health care bill, which would overhaul one-seventh of the nation's economy.

During an afternoon session before the House Energy and Commerce committee, Florida Republican Rep. Clifford B. Stearns was nonplused by Mrs. Clinton's ability to reel off facts, figures, and philosophical arguments -- as well as personal references to each member -- without consulting aides.

"I've seen the Federal Reserve Board chairman and Bush administration officials sitting there with a full complement of aides," he said. "You make a winning statement by showing up all alone at that table."

The mostly male legislators treated Mrs. Clinton -- only the third first lady ever to appear before a congressional committee -- with a combination of gallantry and genuine respect for her work with them in developing the health care plan.

Though Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosalyn Carter spoke at congressional hearings, Mrs. Clinton is the first wife of a president to testify as the chief architect of a major administrative initiative.

She said yesterday she was appearing in other capacities as well, however.

"More importantly for me, I'm here as a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a woman," Mrs. Clinton said. "I'm here as an American citizen concerned about the health of her family and the health of her nation."

In dozens of their questions, though, Democrats as well as Republicans raised doubts about the Clinton health plan's potential impact on small business, the poor, the elderly, tobacco farmers, taxpayers and those who are already satisfied with their health care benefits.

"There are fundamental disagreements" about how much of Mr. Clinton's overhaul of the health system Congress should accept, warned Rep. Bill Archer of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee. "And this is the room in which many of those decisions will be made."

"I personally am genuinely skeptical about the president's claim that his plan will create new jobs," he added. "Evidence is it will do just the opposite."

Republican Rep. E. Clay Shaw of Florida, who said his district includes one of the largest group of retirees in the country, said his constituents will not accept Mr. Clinton's proposal for cuts in the popular Medicare health plan for the elderly, which he said would amount to $200 billion.

Mrs. Clinton soothingly explained the reasoning that lay behind the plan's provisions -- including a comment to Mr. Shaw that $124 billion of Medicare savings would only slow the rate of increase.

She assured the lawmakers that most details are still open to negotiation and appealed to those with broad philosophical disagreements to keep the goal of universal coverage in mind.

"We may disagree on the exact formula for achieving reform," she acknowledged, but she said she hoped all could agree that when Congress is finished "every American will receive a health services card that guarantees a comprehensive plan of benefits that cannot be taken away under any circumstances."

But Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., one of the administration's most vocal critics on health care reform, demanded to know what he should tell his mother about the proposed cuts in Medicare. "Her costs are going to go up," said Mr. Stark, who favors a government-financed system like Canada's. "What can you add to reassure Mother?"

"I have a mother, too, Mr. Stark," Mrs. Clinton replied. "If we can't pass the mother test, we're not going to be able to succeed, are we?"

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