Health reform suddenly finds Gephardt hedging

June 11, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In a striking departure from the Democratic Party line, House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt raised the prospect yesterday that major health care reform legislation may not be enacted this year.

Mr. Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat charged with shepherding a version of President Clinton's health care bill through the House, predicted that his party wouldn't be "penalized" for failing to act so long as the "American people perceive that we tried our dead-level best."

The majority leader's comments, made at a breakfast meeting with reporters, were clearly aimed at lowering expectations for approval of a sweeping health care bill at a time when the legislative process has reached a critical phase. Until now, Democratic leaders had all insisted that some health reform bill would pass by the end of the year.

On Thursday, the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee became the first of five major panels considering the legislation to complete work on the proposal. None of the other four committees is close, with time quickly running out on the congressional calendar.

Most lawmakers believe health care legislation must make it through initial consideration on the House and Senate floors before the August recess for there to be any chance of enactment this year.

Although Mr. Gephardt said he is "optimistic" that congressionalleaders will ultimately find a consensus, he declined to predict certain victory.

"I'm not going to give you double your money back that we'll get it done," he said. "The members want to do it. They'll try to do it. They want to give it everything they got. But they realize that we may not get there."

By contrast, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, a Democrat from Maine, said yesterday that he remains confident the Democratic-led Congress will "pass a good bill with Republican support" this year.

Mr. Clinton also was upbeat yesterday. He made congratulatory calls to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the Labor and Human Resources Committee, and to James M. Jeffords of Vermont, a committee member who is the only Republican so far to support a version of the Clinton bill.

As the first top Democratic leader to publicly play down the urgency of passing the centerpiece initiative of the Clinton presidency, Mr. Gephardt reflected the widespread uneasiness and confusion about health care reform among his colleagues.

The barrage of attacks on the Clinton plan from special-interest groups in the nine months since it was unveiled have made voters fearful they may be worse off if it passes. Polls show that health care reform is no longer the hot issue it was two years ago, when Mr. Clinton and the many other lawmakers were first elected.

"Americans think we have a good health care system, and they don't want it messed up," Mr. Gephardt said. "They're aware that you can't walk in and do health care easily if it hasn't been done for 50 years."

To prepare for his task of shaping bills produced by several committees into one House proposal, the majority leader has been taking soundings of his Democratic colleagues on the issue in recent days. He said he has found them committed to some action on health care and willing to "keep an open mind." But he said the lawmakers are sorting through myriad options for lowering costs and dragging out the timetable for the bill's provisions to take effect.

"I think Democrats believe the American people want us to do this, but they don't know what 'this' is," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. "Eighty percent of the members are walking around trying to figure out how do we pass health care reform without shortchanging the people we represent."

Mr. Gephardt's strategy is designed in part to counter the Republican approach of seeking only minimal changes to the health care system, aides say. Mr. Gephardt is laying the groundwork for blaming Republicans in the fall elections if a major reform bill fails this year.

The Democrats are worried about the midterm elections because analysts say they could lose up to 15 to 20 seats in the House and perhaps five or six in the Senate. That would rob them of an effective majority. If the losses are any higher, they could lose control of one house entirely.

Some political analysts say all incumbents will suffer if Congress takes no action on health reform this year because it would make an already maligned institution appear unable to function.

As the party in power, the Democrats are likely to be hurt more, said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

"If Congress were to adjourn without taking action on the major issue most of them ran on, that would be a political disaster for the Democrats," he said. "I'd love to be a Republican challenger saying to the Democrat, 'You asked for the power to run the government, then you dropped the ball.' "

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