Senate clash brewing over health care

June 28, 1994|By Karen Hosler and John Fairhall | Karen Hosler and John Fairhall,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Despite centrist efforts to compromise on health care reform, Republican and Democratic Senate leaders are preparing for a partisan clash that could prevent any sweeping legislation from passing this year.

Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine have both apparently concluded that it serves their political and personal interests to fight rather than bargain. Both are hardening their positions for a high-stakes showdown on the Senate floor later this summer.

Mr. Dole is resisting the compromise plan drafted last week by a bipartisan group of moderates from the Senate Finance Committee. Even though that proposal is less ambitious than a bill Mr. Dole co-sponsored last year, the Republican leader is crafting an even more modest plan and imploring his troops to line up behind him.

"I've got 40 Republicans, and they've only got three," Mr. Dole said of the three Republican moderates who helped shape the compromise. "Two of them aren't going to be around here next year like the rest of us," he added, referring to two members who are retiring.

The political calculation of Mr. Dole, a prospective challenger to President Clinton in 1996, is easy to understand. There is little incentive for him to cast tough votes in order to give Mr. Clinton a victory on health care legislation that would be the centerpiece of the president's re-election effort.

But there are a lot of reasons for Mr. Dole to wait until after this year's congressional elections, when, both tradition and polls suggest, the Republicans will pick up more seats and be in a stronger position to write the health care legislation as they want it.

The Republican leader fears, however, that he will look like an obstructionist if he is forced to stop a Clinton-like bill with a filibuster near the end of the process. So he is trying his best now, confidants say, to prevent the Finance Committee from breaking its deadlock. That wouldn't stop the legislative process, but it would make it so difficult that the effort might collapse on its own.

"It's very unfortunate that partisan political considerations have begun to take on greater importance than concern for health care," said John Rother, chief lobbyist for the American Association of Retired Persons, which supports a Clinton-style bill.

Mr. Mitchell, who serves as the president's chief agent in the Senate, is devising a risky strategy aimed at calling Mr. Dole's bluff. He and other Democratic liberals, who are true believers in the health care overhaul that Mr. Clinton proposes, don't want to yield as much ground as it would take to win Republican votes.

Even the bipartisan compromise -- though a breakthrough in many respects -- falls far short of meeting Mr. Clinton's goal of guaranteed health insurance for every American that can never be taken away.

Some Democrats, like Sen. Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota, a Mitchell protege who hopes to replace him next year as majority leader, are willing to back the bipartisan bill, even though they feel that it isn't generous enough, just to break the committee deadlock.

"Let's get it through committee and see what we can do on the floor,"Mr. Daschle said Friday.

A much-postponed committee drafting session on health care legislation was put off again yesterday until tomorrow. The committee is expected to consider proposals to require employers to buy health insurance for employees after a certain date. Supporters of a Clinton-style plan say that such an employer "mandate" is crucial to ensuring universal coverage.

Mr. Mitchell's plan is to combine whatever comes out of the Senate Finance Committee with a much more generous version of the Clinton plan approved by the Labor and Human Resources Committee, chaired by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Mr. Mitchell's strategy is to tailor the combined bill largely to meet the concerns of Democrats because he expects to get few if any Republicans. Relying entirely on Democrats is risky because there are only 56 Democrats, and 51 votes are required to pass a bill.

Mr. Mitchell's strategy also is vulnerable to a filibuster. It takes 60 votes to block a filibuster, but the majority leader is gambling that the Republicans will not use that tactic once public attention is focused on the issues.

The White House is trying to remain above the legislative hardball at least until the end of this week, when Congress adjourns for a weeklong July 4th recess. But Mr. Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton and various interest groups backing health care reform are working to build enthusiasm for the central elements of their proposal.

At a White House ceremony yesterday attended by the deans of many leading medical schools, Mr. Clinton urged Congress to "get beyond the politics" of health reform and pass legislation that would guarantee insurance for all Americans.

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