GOP, Democratic leaders squabble publicly on health

May 23, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- A health care debate between leading Republican and Democratic senators grew sharply partisan yesterday as Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat, accused Senate GOP leader Bob Dole of Kansas of opposing reform in order to advance his presidential ambitions.

"See, I think Bob Dole is really a major problem here. He wants to be president in '96," said Mr. Rockefeller, who is President Clinton's staunchest congressional ally on health care reform.

Mr. Rockefeller also accused other, unnamed Republicans of "stalling and saying no" to all Democratic overtures on a number of key compromises.

Mr. Dole was not present during the debate on NBC's "Meet the Press," but Sen. John H. Chafee, a Rhode Island Republican, dismissed Mr. Rockefeller's charges as "a little bizarre" and derided the West Virginian as "captain of the Titanic."

The exchange reflected the growing frustration among many Democrats in Congress and the administration at the snail-like pace on what they hope will be the legislative centerpiece of Mr. Clinton's first term. It now seems all but certain that no committee in either the House or Senate will be able to report out a bill by the end of this week, when Congress begins a Memorial Day recess.

Also, such harsh words -- and in so public a forum -- cast doubt on whether genuine bipartisanship on the issue can prevail, as nearly everyone in both parties has preached.

Finally, the partisan accusations provided a glimpse of the rancor and recriminations that undoubtedly will mar the fall congressional campaign if Congress adjourns without enacting health reform this year.

On Friday, the Republican National Committee unveiled a $500,000 national television ad campaign -- featuring Mr. Dole, among others -- attacking Mr. Clinton's reform agenda as a "government-run" system that was too ambitious.

The sharp words between Mr. Chafee and Mr. Rockefeller, both members of the key Senate Finance Committee, were surprising in part because Mr. Chafee, perhaps more than any other Republican senator, is a longtime champion of health care reform, as is Mr. Rockefeller among the Democrats.

Mr. Chafee agrees with Mr. Clinton and Mr. Rockefeller that serious health care reform must mean coverage for the estimated 38 million uninsured Americans. But Mr. Chafee would accomplish that goal much more slowly, relying on a government requirement that all individuals buy insurance.

Mr. Clinton proposes to achieve universal coverage through an employer-and-individual mandate, requiring all employers to pay at least 80 percent of a worker's premiums, with the individual paying the rest.

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