WASHINGTON -- More than any other single aspect of President Clinton's State of the Union address, his threat to veto any health-care reform bill that "does not guarantee every American private health insurance that can never be taken away" has set inside Washington to speculating and interpreting.
George Stephanopoulos, the president's senior (at age 32) adviser for policy and strategy, says the threat means just what it says -- that any bill that reaches Clinton's desk, to be signed, must include "a way to guarantee private insurance to every American, not just the right, but the means to exercise that right."
But the president's failure to use the specific term "universal coverage" has triggered a guessing game among Democrats and Republicans alike as to whether he means the bill to avoid a veto has to include his provision that employers be mandated to pay 80 percent of the private insurance premiums for their employees.
"In general terms, there have to be either major new taxes, and nobody wants that, or some kind of mandated financing," Stephanopoulos said. Beyond that, he said, "we can't get too much into defining it, we can't get into negotiating positions now" -- a hint that there is room for compromise.
Republican Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island, the principal author of a GOP alternative that also calls for universal coverage but with individuals required to pay the premiums, says he isn't ++ clear on whether Clinton "is saying, 'Universal coverage via employer mandate,' or 'There has to be universal coverage and I don't care how we get there.' "
Chafee suggests there is leeway for negotiations on the time frame in which the coverage would be in place. The Clinton plan says 1998 and Chafee's specifies the year 2005. "I suspect it will slip," the senator says.
Such speculation feeds a notion that Clinton's veto threat was more theatrics than substance. Chafee expresses surprise that a Democratic president would feel he had to use a veto threat on a Congress controlled by his own party. "I guess he wanted to make very clear there is a bottom line," Chafee says, "and politically it sounds good." But at the same time, the senator says, the threat suggests that the president "recognizes there are a lot of problems with his bill. It's so heavy on regulation and vague on
how it's going to be paid for."
Bill Kristol, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle who has led the argument that there is no crisis in American health care, says Clinton seemed to be intentionally "fuzzy" on the distinction between universal coverage and access to it. "By Clinton's standard," Kristol says, "every American pretty much has the opportunity now to buy life insurance that can never be taken away. I believe he has left himself a little wiggle room," he says, to take what Congress sends him and say it meets his criterion.
In any event, Kristol argues that Clinton's veto threat, rather than a demonstration of muscle, is more an acknowledgment of weakness in the health-care debate four months after first unveiling his plan. "He's trying to stem erosion in his own party of moderate Democrats" going with one of the less ambitious plans, such as that of Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, he says.
The fix-only-what's-broken approach embraced by Kristol and advanced in the Republican reply to Clinton's speech by Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, Kristol says, gives the Republicans a strong political weapon with which to undercut the Clinton plan. Dole mentioned provisions in Chafee's alternative that are also in the Clinton plan that would deal with aspects of existing health care most worrying to voters. They include the ability to take coverage from an old job to a new one -- and coverage for illness existing before that coverage is in place.
In any event, Kristol argues, "health care could be the tar baby of this administration. 'Everything else is New Democrat'" -- meaning that this Clinton proposal calling for a big new bureaucracy could overshadow the president's efforts in other areas to separate himself from the reputation of his party as big tax-and-spenders, the undoing of the two previous Democratic nominees, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.