Health Care: Is It Veto-Bait?

January 27, 1994

"If the legislation you send me does not guarantee every American private health insurance that can never be taken away, I will take this pen, veto the legislation and tell you to start over again." So said President Clinton at the most contentious moment of his State of the Union address.

To some experts, this was a line in the sand he had to draw. Unlike last year's budget fight, which easily lent itself to Capital Hill horse-trading, the health plan drawn up by Hillary Rodham Clinton may be a stone arch that falls to pieces if one of its major building blocks is taken away. Thus the Clinton veto threat was seen as aimed at both liberals who want a government-run single-payer system (i.e., public as opposed to private insurance) and at conservatives who stress minimal change.

Sound simple? Well it isn't. To get to universal coverage under

the managed competition approach adopted by Mrs. Clinton, you supposedly need mandated employer financing, regional alliances to offer standard insurance and benefits packages and community rating to set standard prices for all citizens. Yet the president never used the key phrase, "universal coverage," nor did he specify "employer mandates."

So Rep Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., whose compromise bill has wide bipartisan support, said he did not consider his proposal veto bait. Similar word came from Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., author of a moderate Republican approach.

Within hours of the president's speech Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen was assuring manufacturers that "this plan is going to be massaged a lot in Congress." The president is willing to compromise, he said, "so long as reform achieves his goal of universal coverage with a defined set of benefits." Note that in pushing compromise, he used the code words the president avoided. Obfuscation plus!

Secretary Bentsen specifically told businessmen that the administration is flexible on the size of companies permitted to self-insure. It is also believed the proposed alliances are too structured, too bureaucratic and sure to be changed. So a lot more wiggle room will have to be found.

If the president has increased his risks by threatening his first veto, the Republicans also have their work cut out for them, especially since Mr. Clinton pre-empted such "GOP issues" as welfare reform and getting tough on crime. Having listened to Mr. Clinton insist his health care plan is rooted in the private sector, Senate Republican leader Bob Dole hit back that it represented "a massive overdose of government control" even though he, as a would-be presidential candidate, would prefer not to be considered a rejectionist.

If this year's battle ends in a veto, it would be a setback for Mr. Clinton as well as an awkward corner for Republicans. But if the veto turns out to be a presidential tool for pushing though a stronger bill, it would be considered a risk worth the taking. The president must have pondered deeply before making this gesture. Now the fight begins.

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