Family Feuds, Democratic Style

December 12, 1993

Democrats being Democrats, it perhaps won't be too long before the ideological divide within the party reaches the presidential bedroom.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Old Democrat in the family, is determined on a health care reform program guaranteeing "universal coverage" for all Americans. Bill Clinton, who won the presidency as a New Democrat, may have to settle for a more modest approach called "universal access."

There's a lot more than a semantic difference here. Mrs. Clinton's plan would require all employers to pay 80 percent of their employees' health care costs, set up a National Health Board to limit spending and impose government price controls. A rival plan, sponsored by Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, a stalwart in the centrist Democratic Leadership Council once headed by Mr. Clinton, would provide "access" to coverage through lower insurance costs but leave it to individuals to decide whether to enroll. The First Lady has let it be known she would prefer a Senate Republican plan to the Cooper approach.

At a DLC get-together early this month, the president and Congressman Cooper were studiously polite and accommodating to one another. But simultaneously, Mrs. Clinton was meeting with Sen. Jay Rockefeller and other Democratic liberals to plot an assault on the Cooper plan. The tensions underscored by this juxtaposition lent credence to a broadside warning to the administration issued by Rep. Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma, the new DLC chairman, as the organization ended its meeting.

Siding openly with the Cooper plan, Mr. McCurdy declared: "This health care plan will reflect. . . the nature of the Clinton administration. If new federal mandates cost jobs and create an impersonal bureaucracy, another generation of Americans will learn that government -- and Democrats -- work against them, not for them."

It will be interesting to see how the president reconciles that adamant DLC position with his wife's assertion that "there's a lot about the Cooper plan" she doesn't agree with -- most especially its abandonment of early achievement of "universal coverage." If a Democratic White House and a Democratic Congress can't agree on what the Clintons describe as the defining issue of this presidency, it will bring joy only to Republicans.

As if the health care squabble were not enough, the AFL-CIO threatened to stop all election contributions for three months to protest the president's success in winning approval of the DLC-backed North American Free Trade Agreement. It seems the hatchet has been buried. But if organized labor tries to sabotage Democrats who voted for NAFTA, Mr. Clinton has to protect them. He cannot abandon the likes of Steny Hoyer and Ben Cardin.

As various coalitions shuffle in Democratic ranks, Mr. Clinton says he will seek "the accommodation of issues all across the country." That's what presidents do. In his case "the country" may include the second floor of the White House.

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