. . . And His Legislative Clout

June 01, 1994

One of the ironic results of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski's decision to fight his 17-count indictment (see above editorial) is that it permits him to remain a key player much valued by the White House in the drive for health care reform. Had the Illinois Democrat accepted the plea bargain discussed last week by government prosecutors and his defense lawyers, the resulting felony conviction would have forced him to resign from Congress on the instant. As it is, he will have to give up his chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee but will likely remain an influential figure.

Long considered a consummate legislative deal-maker instrumental in putting together such major bills as the 1986 tax reform statute and the 1990 and 1993 deficit reduction measures, Mr. Rostenkowski has already put his imprint on health care reform. A bill making its way through his committee is expected to be the basis for whatever passes the House. While he will no longer officially wield the gavel, his role could overshadow that of the new Ways and Means chairman, Rep. Sam Gibbons, D-Fla. Companion efforts by two other House committees will probably be left in the shade.

Crucial in the shape of final legislation will be the compromise worked out between the House version of health care reform and whatever comes out of the Senate. Members of Ways and Means and the Senate Finance Committee can be counted upon to have the most leverage despite other legislative fingers in the health reform pie.

During congressional battles royal in the past, the end result often came after Mr. Rostenkowski would closet himself with the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. The process was often likened to the making of sausage, which postulates enjoyment of the product without wanting to know how it is concocted. This time, because of Mr. Rostenkowski's loss of his chairmanship, Mr. Gibbons will have to fill that final-stage role.

While the government's blockbuster indictment may send many members of Congress ducking for cover, there remains a residue of fear, respect and admiration for "Rosty" on Capitol Hill. Whether this will be sufficient to allow him one last hurrah depends on three key factors: Do Democratic and Republican incumbents alike feel a compelling need to enact health care reform before they face the voters? Will Mr. Rostenkowski be considered an indispensable asset or a hindrance who has brought Congress into further disrepute? Will his legal troubles overwhelm and distract him? As for President Clinton, his press secretary described Mr. Rostenkowski as an "important player on health care" and vowed the White House "will continue to work with him." That says it all.

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