WASHINGTON -- President Clinton complained yesterday that despite his repeated attempts to compromise with the congressional Republicans whose votes he needs to pass health care reform, they keep moving "further away."
"I desperately want a bipartisan bill. . . . I feel like I keep reaching out," Mr. Clinton told a White House rally of disabled Americans ++ who support his health care legislation.
The president vented his exasperation with the opposition party at a time when Senate leaders are struggling to produce a version of the health care reform bill that can muster at least 51 votes.
The bill cannot pass with Democratic votes alone because at least eight of the 56 Senate Democrats are moderates who would feel more comfortable voting for a bill that also had Republican support, some senators say. But the moderate Republicans most likely to vote for a compromise bill seem to keep raising the price of their support, Mr. Clinton said.
"At one point, two dozen Republican senators supporteSenator [John] Chafee's bill for universal coverage," the president recalled, referring to a Republican proposal almost as sweeping as Mr. Clinton's own.
"But every time I have reached out" to Senator Chafee and otheRepublicans, Mr. Clinton said, "they have moved further away."
Overshadowing Mr. Clinton's attempts to find common ground with moderate Republicans is the call from national GOP leaders to deny Mr. Clinton any victory on health care this year that might help the Democrats in the congressional elections this fall.
"Sight unseen, Republicans should oppose" whatever version othe bill Democratic leaders bring to the House and Senate floor next month, William Kristol, a Republican consultant, advised in a memo to party leaders this week.
"Those stray Republicans who delude themselves by believing that there is still a 'mainstream' middle solution are merely pawns in the Democratic game," Mr. Kristol wrote. "Health care reform is now about politics, and absolutely nothing else."
Not all congressional Republicans have reached that point of cynicism about the process. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a moderate Republican who represents Maryland's Eastern Shore, said he simply doesn't agree with the Clinton proposal to overhaul one-seventh of the nation's economy "in one fell swoop."
"I won't vote against it just because I'm a Republican," said Mr. Gilchrest, who favors a more modest approach of incremental reforms being promoted by his party.
A bipartisan group of House members is trying to put together a somewhat broader approach that it hopes to offer as an alternative to the Democratic leadership plan when the health care legislation comes up for a House vote in two weeks.
"But we're going to have a bit of a scuffle over that," said the House Republican leader, Robert H. Michel of Illinois, who noted that Democratic leaders might be fearful of giving moderate Democrats an alternative to the Clinton-style bill.
In the House, Democratic leaders are preparing to try to pass their bill entirely with Democratic votes because they are convinced that the Republicans are nothing but spoilers.
"I think it's been made abundantly clear, despite some talk about how people would like bipartisanship, that the Republican strategy is to defeat health care," House Speaker Thomas S. Foley of Washington told reporters yesterday. "They simply want to kill the bill. . . . Anything else is naive to assume at this point."
In the Senate, though, the fate of the president's bill appears to rest on the goodwill of a few Republicans who might be willing to resist the pressure from Minority Leader Bob Dole to join Mr. Clinton in a compromise.
Mr. Dole, a potential challenger to Mr. Clinton in 1996, not onlwants to deny the president a victory on his centerpiece legislation, but he also wants to delay the issue until next year, when the Republicans expect to have greater numbers in both the House and Senate.
Senator Chafee and his fellow Republican moderates John C. Danforth of Missouri and Dave Durenberger of Minnesota are willing to resist the pressure. But they aren't willing to vote for a health care bill as sweeping as Mr. Chafee's original proposal of last year.
For example, any requirement that employers buy health insurance for their workers -- a central feature of the Clinton bill -- is unacceptable, Mr. Chafee says.
fourth Republican, James M. Jeffords of Vermont, the only GOP co-sponsor of Mr. Clinton's original bill, has been meeting with the Chafee group and other moderates who are crafting an alternative to the Democratic leadership bill being developed by Majority Leader George J. Mitchell.
Mr. Dole, an original co-sponsor of Mr. Chafee's bill who is now backing a very modest package of reforms, is casting his resistance to compromise as a desire for more time to study the Democratic leadership proposal.
Senator Dole yesterday demanded a week to study Mr. Mitchell's as-yet-unfinished version of the bill before the measure comes up in the Senate for debate. Other Republicans have begun calling for the Senate to go home for its August recess before taking up the legislation.