Fla. congressman takes over Rostenkowski post, but quickly runs into trouble

June 10, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Sam M. Gibbons' formal takeover yesterday of the House Ways and Means Committee's chairmanship from Dan Rostenkowski seemed like Florida sunshine suddenly descending upon a blustery Chicago winter.

The Florida Democrat started the session a little late, turned off the red light that warns members they are talking too long, and joshed around a bit.

Mr. Gibbons' folksy style broke the tension, so that even Mr. Rostenkowski seemed relaxed in his newly diminished role as No. 2.

But on substance, the Florida Democrat's first day as acting leader of one of the most powerful committees in Congress was a flop.

Delayed until next week

The health care reform plan he helped rush into print -- after Mr. Rostenkowski's indictment last week -- turned out to be based on faulty staff calculations. Revisions will delay committee action until at least next week.

Worse, the Gibbons plan had promised more generous benefits than did earlier plans, at lower cost. That turns out to be impossible.

"It's the biggest frustration of my new chairmanship," Mr. Gibbons lamented, good-naturedly. In similar circumstances, Mr. Rostenkowski probably would have bitten somebody's head off.

Four of the five major committees involved with health care were running at nearly full tilt yesterday.

In the Senate, the Labor and Human Resources Committee voted along party lines last night to approve its version of President Clinton's health care reform bill.

Cheers and applause greeted the first reform proposal to make it out of committee.

But that bill, drafted by the committee chairman, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., isn't expected to advance intact. Its benefits, which include comprehensive long-term care, are considered too expensive.

'Evolving process'

"This isn't the end, it's really the beginning," Mr. Kennedy acknowledged last night, noting his bill would be part of an "evolving process."

Like Mr. Clinton, Mr. Kennedy would place on employers most of the burden of paying for health insurance -- a concept that is running into resistance from Republicans and conservative Democrats.

More conservative forces hold the balance of power on the Senate Finance Committee, where its chairman, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., unveiled his version of the bill yesterday.

The Moynihan proposal, clearly just an opening bid to get the process moving, would adopt the Clinton plan's requirement that most employers pay 80 percent of insurance premiums for their workers.

And it would provide a break for small businesses similar to those of the Kennedy plan.

But the Finance Committee is likely to approve a less radical plan that would phase-in employer requirements.

White House pressure

Mr. Moynihan, who has been seeking a bipartisan compromise, has been under pressure from the White House to push a bill through his committee entirely with Democratic votes.

The House Education and Labor subcommittee on health, which approved a Clinton-style health reform bill two weeks ago, endorsed yesterday an alternative approach to create a government-run health care system.

That "single-payer" option, similar to Canada's health system, would raise payroll taxes to pay for the government-run program and would eliminate most private insurance. It is considered too radical to win enactment.

Of the five major committees considering the health care bill, only the House Energy and Commerce was idle yesterday.

Progress is stalled there because its chairman, Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., is a vote shy of the 23 he needs to pass a bill.

But there had been high hopes for Ways and Means after Mr. Gibbons met privately Wednesday with committee Democrats for the first time as acting chairman. He will serve in that capacity until Mr. Rostenkowski's legal status is resolved.

'Big letdown'

The 74-year-old Mr. Gibbons outlined a plan offering more generous benefits than the Clinton proposal but no major tax increase. But when the cost estimates came through, it turned out that the program fell far short of breaking even.

"It was a big letdown," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Baltimore Democrat who is on the Ways and Means Committee. "I was really up yesterday. That benefits program looked like a Christmas tree."

The committee's disappointment may have been the beginning of the end of the Gibbons honeymoon.

Mr. Gibbons, who hovered as a successor-in-waiting during the two-year federal probe of Mr. Rostenkowski, has made clear he does not intend to be just a figurehead.

When the legislators returned this week from their Memorial Day break, the difference in the Ways and Means leadership was both subtle and enormous.

Mr. Gibbons and Mr. Rostenkowski simply switched seats in the committee room, but the Floridian was now in the center of the dais, with the title "chairman" on his nameplate.

Mr. Rostenkowski also had to surrender the perks that went with the chairmanship, including an ornate conference room on the second floor of the Capitol that was his hideaway.

A hand-painted wooden plate bearing his name has been removed from the door.

The longtime committee aide who often waited outside the door as Mr. Rostenkowski's personal bodyguard now finds duties elsewhere.

The almost palpable aura of power that surrounded Mr. Rostenkowski is gone. Ways and Means Republicans, used to being treated like excess furniture, say they are not unhappy with the change in atmosphere.

"It's much better," Rep. Bill Thomas of California said after Mr. Gibbons met with committee Republicans on Wednesday. "He says: 'What do you need to do your job? If I can beat you, I will. If I can't, I'll work with you.' You feel like you are part of the committee."

The Republicans were particularly delighted when Mr. Gibbons gave them a draft version of his proposal before it had been officially printed.

"We wouldn't even have asked Rostenkowski," Mr. Thomas said. "He would have just told us to wait like everybody else."

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