Committee delays could doom health care reform this year, senators say

June 22, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Senate leaders conceded yesterday that congressional committees will not finish work on health reform legislation by the July 4 weekend -- the clearest signal to date that a sweeping health care bill may not pass Congress this year.

After weeks of insisting that reform legislation would be ready for floor debate when the senators return from their July 4 recess, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine said yesterday that his best hope was to get the bill onto the floor by the end of July. That would leave only two weeks for floor debate before Congress is scheduled to adjourn for a three-week recess intended for family vacations and campaigning for re-election.

In the sea of difficulties both political and technical that are threatening enactment of the reform program President Clinton is seeking, Sen. John H. Chafee, a Rhode Island Republican sympathetic to the effort, said: "What worries me most is the lack of time."

Mr. Clinton is vigorously resisting the suggestion from lawmakers of both parties that he severely scale back his proposal or give up on getting a bill passed at all this year.

"I refuse to declare defeat," the president said yesterday.

Mr. Clinton told a gathering of business leaders that he had already agreed to many changes in his proposal and that more were likely.

"But let us not walk away," the president exhorted members of the Business Roundtable, which originally backed his bill, then shifted to a version that put less emphasis on regulation. "We need to deal with this issue this year."

The delay in Senate action results from an impasse on the Senate Finance Committee that has been complicated by a lack of cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office for the proposals under consideration. Those cost figures are not expected until mid-July, committee members were told yesterday.

Although it has long been clear that the committee would be unable to complete formal drafting of the complex legislation before the July 4 recess, the Finance Committee chairman, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has been hoping that his members would reach a political consensus by then.

"We ought to get concentrating," the New York Democrat said in a television interview Sunday. "If it's not done basically the week after next, it's getting too late."

Mr. Mitchell has also been issuing thinly veiled threats in meetings with House and Senate Democratic leaders that if Mr. Moynihan's committee failed to make the July 4 deadline, he would proceed without it.

The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee approved a health care reform measure two weeks ago similar to the bill Mr. Clinton proposed. Although that measure, sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, is believed to be too liberal to win approval from the full Senate, Mr. Mitchell reasoned that it could be amended on the floor.

But that tactic, aimed at circumventing the Republicans and conservative Democrats who hold the balance of power in the Senate Finance Committee, was scorned yesterday by many of Mr. Mitchell's colleagues.

"You have to work from the center out," observed Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana, a Finance Committee member who is working with a bipartisan group of centrists to shape a compromise.

Because of the postponement in floor debate, the pressure is off Mr. Breaux and his colleagues to come up with a deal any time soon. In fact, Mr. Breaux spoke for the first time yesterday of the August recess as a deadline for committee action.

Sen. Thomas A. Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat who is running to succeed Mr. Mitchell as majority leader, argued yesterday that at some point Mr. Mitchell will have to say he won't wait for the Finance Committee any longer.

Mr. Daschle declined to speculate on when that should be, however.

Nothing is new about Congress' missing deadlines. Legislative leaders hate to set deadlines for fear of being held to them.

But the health care overhaul proposed by Mr. Clinton would affect one-seventh of the economy and virtually every American. There are thousands of details to be worked out once the broad political decisions are made.

Thomas A. Scully, a lobbyist for the health insurance industry who served as a top budget aide in the Bush administration, said he fears that so much of the technical work will be done in haste that it will take years for Congress to undo its mistakes.

In the House, committees are also behind schedule. But House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt expects to have Clinton-like versions of the health care reform bill approved "in concept" this month by both the Ways and Means Committee and the Committee on Education and Labor.

Mr. Gephardt will take charge of shaping those two measures into a form that will be taken to the House floor in mid-July. But uncertainty over how the Senate will handle the bill has complicated Mr. Gephardt's task of getting a strong measure through.

"On the floor it's chaos," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui of California, one of the senior Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee. "Everyone is upset about the Senate."

Stalwarts in support of a Clinton-style makeover of the health care system were undaunted yesterday. They went about making their case that average middle-class Americans are the ones who will lose if nothing much is done.

"There's a lot of hypocrisy in Congress," said Mr. Kennedy, whose bill would allow all Americans to join the same health care program lawmakers have. "If it's good enough for members of Congress, it's good enough for every man, woman and child in America."

Mr. Kennedy and all 9 million federal employees, retirees and dependents belong to a health care system that offers the choice of nearly 400 plans. It is the largest in the country, and many legislators believe it should be the model for health care reform.

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