Key House panel gives up pursuit of health bill

June 29, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- After months of deadlock, the committee that many had considered the most important health reform testing ground in the House gave up its effort to produce a bill, saying yesterday that its membership appeared hopelessly at odds.

More than any other single development, this one captured how difficult it has become to find a middle ground between the left, right and a myriad of special interests.

At one point, the Energy and Commerce Committee had been regarded as the most fertile ground in the House for a grand health compromise. Of the three House committees charged with producing sweeping legislation, its largely moderate membership most closely resembled the House's overall ideological bent.

The committee's failure to produce legislation puts enormous pressure on House Democratic leaders to come up with a bill virtually from scratch, because the legislation being produced by the other two House panels is likely to be too liberal to win approval by the House as a whole.

In a letter to House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., that conceded what has been obvious for some time, Chairman John D. Dingell, D-Mich., wrote: "At this point, it would be counterproductive to convene the committee, call up legislation and consume an enormous amount of time and resources without any assurance of success. A prolonged debate in the Energy and Commerce Committee could undercut or delay the efforts of other committees to bring sound legislation to the floor."

The White House sought to put the best face on the development, with White House spokeswoman Lorrie McHugh saying that Mr. Dingell's move demonstrated his commitment to "keeping the process moving forward by focusing on the process on the [House] floor."

An administration official, who requested anonymity, added that Mr. Dingell had come "very, very close" to getting the votes to report out a bill resembling the president's proposal. "He could have kept working on it, but because time was running out, he wanted to focus on action on the House floor."

A Republican analyst and health care lobbyist, Deborah Steelman, agreed with that assessment. "His role has not been diminished by virtue of what's happened."

For Mr. Dingell, whose legislative skills are legendary on Capitol Hill, it was also a personal defeat, despite the fact that he and several members of his committee will continue to play a major role in the health debate.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, the Finance Committee prepared to begin today its formal public effort to produce a bill.

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