Health reform appears to be running out of steam

June 17, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The combination of Republican power politics and attacks by lobbyists appears close to having sapped Congress of the political will to enact health care reform legislation this year.

Republican congressional leaders and most GOP members have concluded that they would not be punished by voters for blocking the Clinton effort -- and might even be rewarded for it in the fall elections.

"The policy is not to try to make this bill better," said Rep. Fred Grandy, an Iowa Republican who is bowing to a request from party leaders to withhold amendments designed to improve a Clinton-like bill being debated in the House Ways and Means Committee.

Mr. Grandy explained his action by saying Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the House minority whip, calculates that Republicans would be better off not cooperating with the White House on health care.

According to the Republican whip, Mr. Grandy said, the GOP would fare better if it is perceived by voters as having stopped the Clinton health "juggernaut," which Mr. Gingrich calls "socialized medicine."

But it is too soon to pronounce the health reform a lost cause for the year, because Congress sometimes has a way of resurrecting difficult legislation from the ashes.

President Clinton is summoning key members of the Senate FinanceCommittee to the White House this week in hopes of breaking the panel's stalemate over health care.

Members of both parties are still working toward a "centrist" compromise. And Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate announced yesterday they will be bringing health reform bills to the floor for votes next month.

But even Democrats are spooked by public opposition to elements of the Clinton plan. As a result, they are having difficulty finding a majority within their own ranks to pass a comprehensive reform.

"Some people are saying Western civilization is not going to end if we don't get a health care bill passed this year," said Rep. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a panel deadlocked on the health care issue. "Members are basically saying that they can't eat the whole meal in one sitting."

The passage of health care legislation was always seen as a challenge, and some lawmakers say the stalemate is part of the predictable ups and downs of the process.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat whose Labor and Human Resources Committee is the only panel so far in either the House or the Senate to pass a health care reform bill, believes the tide will turn once the national television audience tunes in to the floor debate.

Mr. Kennedy contended yesterday that Republicans on his committee -- all but one of whom voted against his bill -- stopped attacking it publicly after their offices were flooded with calls from C-SPAN viewers.

Filibuster threat

"When the American people have an opportunity to understand what the issues are, I'm confident there will be no filibuster," Mr. Kennedy said, referring to a thinly veiled threat recently made by Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the Senate minority leader.

Even so, the gloomy outlook of the moment is worrisome to health care reform advocates such as Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat.

He sounded sick at heart about compromise proposals that would shelve for years President Clinton's effort to guarantee health insurance for all Americans.

"These halfway measures don't do anything to help the middle class," Mr. Rockefeller said at a news conference called yesterday by liberal Democrats to combat such proposals.

"Tens of millions of Americans who play by the rules, pay their taxes and who work every single day and who do not have health insurance . . . will never have health insurance unless we act here in Congress this year."

Nearly all Republicans and many Democrats oppose requiring employers to buy health care for their workers. Most also oppose cost controls designed to make health insurance more affordable.

Both those elements of the Clinton plan have been under attack for months by lobbyists and special interest groups.

The latest assault is a new round of "Harry and Louise" ads from the Health Insurance Association of America, a group of private insurance companies that contends that limits on their premiums could lead to rationing of health care.

A previous set of "Harry and Louise" ads is believed to have undermined public support for Mr. Clinton's reform efforts.

According to a poll taken recently for the Wall Street Journal, approval of the Clinton plan has dropped to 38 percent, down from 51 percent after it was unveiled in September.

But there isn't any more enthusiasm in Congress for a proposal advanced by moderate Republicans, including Mr. Grandy, to help finance health care and control costs by taxing health benefits.

Liberal Democrats oppose the taxes because they say union employees gave up wage increases to get those benefits. Conservative Republicans oppose the proposals on grounds that they amount to a tax increase.

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