The Mitchell Compromise

August 04, 1994

History may well record that Senate majority leader George Mitchell's submission of a compromise health care reform bill this week was the pivotal juncture in President Clinton's drive for congressional passage of his No. 1 priority.

For the Maine Democrat, this was no ordinary legislative gambit. Mr. Mitchell gave up a Supreme Court nomination in order to push through a health measure as the concluding achievement of a Senate career that will end this year. Of all the proposals in the hopper, his or something like it has the best chance of enactment.

A hint of what may come can be seen in minority leader Bob Dole's reluctance to commit his Republican forces to a filibuster. This could be poison for the business-oriented GOP in the November elections. Though small businesses that offer no health coverage to their employees oppose significant reform, Fortune 500 corporations and other businesses that have long provided such coverage want federal action so they no longer will be paying up while deadbeat competitors get off scot free.

As for the Democrats, they now have to come up with majorities in the House and Senate, after which a number of moderates in both parties could jump aboard to give Mr. Clinton one of his trademark come-from-behind triumphs.

The question of the moment is what kind of triumph it will be. The president initially proposed an elaborate plan to provide health insurance for all Americans that has been steadily whittled down, piece by piece, to bring reluctant Democrats aboard. He vowed to veto anything that lacks universal coverage. Mr. Mitchell's proposal is seen by some Democratic liberals, especially in the House, as much too minimal to achieve that goal. But significantly, Mr. Clinton has embraced the Mitchell compromise even though it jeopardizes a more comprehensive House bill closer to the original administration blueprint. Democratic strategy is to push for passage of the two bills in both chambers and then meld them to best advantage in a conference committee. The struggle for final passage will be intense and prolonged.

This newspaper welcomes Senator Mitchell's initiative. It would make health insurance available to the working poor, especially women and children, and to persons with preexisting illnesses, the self-employed and to those between jobs. New taxes, subsidies and large insurance pools offering competitive rates and adequate benefits packages would be required. The Mitchell plan sidesteps the knotty question of employer mandates by effectively postponing final decisions until the end of the century, when a "trigger" implementing mandates might be imposed on any state that has not achieved 95 percent coverage.

Thus, the Mitchell plan builds on the present private-sector system while moving more cautiously than the president toward an enlarged federal role. This makes good sense. It is politically realistic. The Senate's leader is living up to his title.


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