Clinton strongly backs Mitchell's health plan

August 04, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon and Mark Matthews | Carl M. Cannon and Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, fighting to save his health care reform proposals and bolster his own standing with the public, gave a strong endorsement last night to a Senate Democratic plan that would give 95 percent of Americans health insurance coverage by 2000.

In a nationally televised press conference, Mr. Clinton insisted that the compromise proposal, unveiled this week by Senate Democratic Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine, would lead to universal health coverage "in the near future."

The president had said in his State of the Union message earlier this year that he would veto any health proposal that did not guarantee coverage for every American.

"My goal has been what it has always been,"' the president said. "I want a system that will take us to universal coverage. If it takes a few years to get there, that's fine with me. We don't want to mess it up."

Mr. Clinton appeared confident and relaxed during the 50-minute session in the East Room of the White House. He seemed in command of the facts and did not bristle with impatience at tough questions as he has in the past -- even when questions were asked concerning Whitewater or his own diminishing popularity.

In fact, in response to one question as to why his program appears stalled and he is less popular than some of the ideas he is pushing, Mr. Clinton smiled and used a self-deprecating line: "Maybe I'm just not as good a talker as you folks thought I was when I got elected president."

"Maybe there's so much going on it's hard for anything specific to get through," Mr. Clinton said. "Maybe it's partly a function of the times in which we live. . . . I can't worry about that. All I can do is show up for work every day."

The president was, however, critical of Republicans in Congress, who he said have switched their position on health care for what he implied were partisan reasons.

"At one time, there were two dozen Republican senators on a bill to give universal coverage to all Americans," the president said. "They have all abandoned that bill. We have reached out to them . . . and every time we have done it, they have moved away."

The president's performance, coming at a crucial time in the legislative calendar, received high marks even from some adversaries.

"He does very well in these kinds of events," said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a Republican from Western Maryland. "And considering the negatives going into this, he did his usual good job."

At one point, Mr. Clinton went beyond the traditional ground rules for a presidential news conference to dramatize his point on health care reform.

He used two ordinary citizens as human props, surprising the press corps by suddenly having them stand up as he answered a question about the need for universal coverage.

One was a man who lost an arm in a motorcycle accident and is willing and able to work -- but can't get health coverage because of his "pre-existing condition."

The other was a man who went to work at a Christian radio station -- only to find out he didn't have health insurance. The president said because of that, the man's wife didn't seek treatment for an illness that turned out to be terminal cancer. She was buried two days ago.

Although the president indicated that health care reform is clearly his top priority, he touched on a wide array of other issues:

* Whitewater: While confirming he hadn't been watching much of the televised hearings, Mr. Clinton reiterated that he has "confidence" in Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger C. Altman. The president added that Mr. Altman had now answered "all the questions the Senate could possibly have about an incident that involved no violation of the law and no violation of ethics."

* Mideast: Two days before Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher leaves for another round of shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Syria, Mr. Clinton said he remains convinced that Syrian President Hafez el Assad is interested in peace.

One piece of public evidence, he said, was that Syria's dictator allowed TV broadcasts of last week's public meeting at the White House between Jordan's King Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

* News conferences: Asked why this was only his third "solo" news conference in 18 months, Mr. Clinton conceded that he should have more of them -- and promised to do so.

"I actually enjoy these, and I think we should do more and do them on a more regular basis. . . . It's one of the changes that I intend to make."

* Baseball: Mr. Clinton said that he has followed with enthusiasm the potential record-breaking season of numerous major league baseball players but indicated he is not planning to involve himself in trying to prevent baseball's looming strike.

"At this time, the situation is sufficiently delicate that I think we need to leave it at that," he said.

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