Deposed chairman still in pivotal role

June 01, 1994|By Karen Hosler and John Fairhall | Karen Hosler and John Fairhall,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINTON — WASHINGTON -- The indictment yesterday of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski will have little effect on the prospects for passing health reform legislation, lawmakers and White House officials predicted yesterday.

Although automatically stripped of the powerful chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee and replaced by Rep. Sam Gibbons, a Florida Democrat, Mr. Rostenkowski will remain a member of the panel and is expected to retain considerable influence as a deal-maker.

The Ways and Means Committee is taking the lead role in the House in trying to fashion reform legislation that meets President Clinton's insistence on guaranteeing health insurance for all Americans. The committee is deadlocked, but many members of the panel express confidence that a bill will be passed in June.

Mr. Rostenkowski, an Illinois Democrat, will have a "very, very important role," even though he no longer is chairman, said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat and a senior member of the committee. "After all, he has really enjoyed the confidence of both the Democrats and Republicans on the committee for such a large number of years. And more importantly, he has a better understanding as to what is necessary in order to get the votes to get a bill out of committee."

Members of the committee and the White House say they will still turn to Mr. Rostenkowski for help on health reform legislation, while respecting the fact that the 74-year-old Mr. Gibbons -- the second-ranking committee Democrat -- will be the acting chairman at least until the charges against Mr. Rostenkowski are resolved.

"He's been an important player on health care . . . and certainly the members have made it clear they will continue to work with him, and that's true of the White House as well," White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers said of Mr. Rostenkowski, who has been committee chairman for 13 years.

Weakened by indictment

Even so, Mr. Rostenkowski's influence is diminished by the indictment because he will lack the authority that comes with the chairmanship: the ability to control the agenda and reward and punish fellow lawmakers.

Another White House official said that while there's not a "sense of panic" about the indictment, "it would have been easier" to pass reform legislation with Mr. Rostenkowski as chairman.

And Mr. Rostenkowski's new relationship with the committee will need time to develop. "It's a new environment," said his spokesman, Jim Jaffe. "Everybody is going to have to feel their way along."

Lawmakers who might be tempted to ignore the newly dethroned chairman have to worry that he might resume the position.

As the 66-year-old Mr. Rostenkowski said Monday, "I am confident that I will be vindicated, and I look forward to the return of the gavel."

In the meantime, Mr. Gibbons will occupy Mr. Rostenkowski's chair. The 32-year veteran of the House has not been influential outside his major area of expertise: trade. And he lacks Mr. Rostenkowski's force of personality -- the Chicagoan's ability to inspire fear and affection.

But Mr. Gibbons says that he is committed to passing reform legislation, and committee members vow to stand behind him. He was in France yesterday for D-Day ceremonies and was unavailable for comment, an aide said.

Some House leaders had debated the possibility that House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat who once served on the Ways and Means Committee, could step in as de facto chairman.

But Ways and Means members found the prospect of an outsider coming in to oversee their committee "very offensive," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat who serves on the panel.

The majority leader, however, is scheduled to play a leading role in shaping the health care legislation that hits the House floor. The plan is for the House Rules Committee, under the direction of Mr. Gephardt, to combine the Ways and Means bill with versions of the health care legislation expected to be produced by two other House panels: the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Education and Labor Committee.

Mr. Rostenkowski's indictment comes at a difficult moment in that process. He has not finished crafting a version of the reform bill that can win the votes he needs to get it through Ways and Means.

The committee's work is critical because the Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by Rep. John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, failed to achieve a majority on health reform legislation.

More generous version

The House Education and Labor Committee, under the direction of Rep. William Ford of Michigan, has a big enough contingent of liberal Democrats to produce a health reform measure that is more generous than Mr. Clinton's.

But that legislation is intended largely as a bargaining chip in negotiations with more conservative forces who hold the swing votes on the House floor.

Even though Mr. Rostenkowski will remain something of a power broker, more of the committee leadership burden falls on Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark, a California Democrat who fashioned the bill that forms the blueprint for committee action.

Mr. Stark, a sharp-tongued iconoclast who delights in shocking his audiences with the occasional outrageous remark, was considered until this year to be unsuited for a major leadership task.

"But he's really changed," said Mr. Cardin, who observed that Mr. Stark seemed to have grown into his new responsibilities.

Mr. Stark concedes no doubts about the committee's ability to pass reform legislation.

"The Ways and Means Committee will pass a bill guaranteeing universal coverage for the American public," he said yesterday.

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