WASHINGTON -- Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat being counted on by the Clinton administration to support its health reform legislation, joined a growing number of lawmakers yesterday who are demanding changes to ease the burden on employers.
Ms. Mikulski said she was concerned about the cost to businesses of a provision to require employers to pay 80 percent of workers' health insurance premiums. She urged a "less burdensome solution."
Her statement underscores the desire of many Democrats who support the president's major goal -- guaranteed health insurance for all Americans -- to find a politically and financially appealing means of achieving it. Most businesses fiercely oppose the insurance requirement and are vigorously lobbying lawmakers like Ms. Mikulski.
Even so, there were clear signs yesterday that in a bumpy, two-steps-forward-one-step-back fashion, Congress is finally moving ahead on reform legislation. The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee became the first Senate committee to begin voting on health reform legislation.
The Democratic-controlled Labor Committee encountered the first flurry of an expected blizzard of 91 Republican amendments to drastically change the reform bill pushed by the committee chairman, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a key Clinton ally.
Republicans oppose the requirement that employers buy health insurance and another provision to limit health insurance premiums, but their amendments are expected to fail.
Similar partisan bickering marked the opening of debate before the House Ways and Means Committee. Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, an Illinois Democrat, made clear that he was willing to let Republicans in his committee have their say while he works behind the scenes to strike an accord among Democrats.
The Kennedy bill retains many features of the Clinton plan, including a rule that employers pay the bulk of workers' premiums. But the Massachusetts Democrat has proposed softening the impact on small employers. Companies with five or fewer workers would not have to buy insurance but would pay a 2 percent payroll tax. Their workers would be required to buy their own insurance, with low-income employees eligible for government subsidies.
President Clinton expressed support for this change, but it doesn't go far enough to help businesses in the view of most Republicans and many Democrats, including Ms. Mikulski. While praising Mr. Kennedy's efforts to help small businesses, the Marylander said, "I also believe we need to go further in this area."
A Mikulski aide said small employers in Maryland have warned the senator that requiring them to pay most insurance costs would cripple them. The aide said the senator is "looking at all the options that have been put forward," including reducing the 80 percent employer's share of premiums.
Ms. Mikulski is also considering a proposal put forth this week by Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat who holds a swing vote on the Senate Finance Committee, which also must approve health reform legislation.
In what was seen by Democratic leaders as a breakthrough, Mr. Breaux, who had previously opposed any requirement that employers pay for insurance, floated a compromise requiring some contribution from all businesses except those with 10 employees or fewer.
Under the Breaux proposal, medium-sized companies could choose between contributing to premiums directly or paying a 2 percent payroll tax. Companies with 1,000 or more employees would have to buy insurance for their workers and pay a 1 percent payroll tax.
While it is unclear whether that compromise plan will prove acceptable, Mr. Breaux's shift on the employer requirement probably means that there will be enough Democratic votes to pass some version of an employer requirement in the Finance Committee. The Labor Committee is also expected to approve an employer requirement.
"It means the mandate is still alive, but not necessarily well," said Sen. Thomas A. Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat who is on the Finance Committee.
Democrats have been seeking Republican support for a compromise health reform bill.
But so far only one Republican senator -- James M. Jeffords of Vermont -- supports a Clinton-style health plan. Republican support is important in the Senate because Senate Democrats do not have enough votes to block a Republican filibuster.