Clinton just may be able to talk health reform in



WASHINGTON -- Now that President Clinton in effect has backed off his explicit threat to veto any health care reform bill "that does not guarantee every American private health insurance that can never be taken away," the battle lines are emerging for an unavoidable partisan showdown.

The president in endorsing the differing Democratic leadership versions in the House and Senate, and especially Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell's plan to cover only 95 percent of Americans for openers, continues to insist that both bills will deliver "universal coverage" -- just not right away.

When Clinton mentioned the 95 percent figure in a Boston speech a couple of weeks ago, he said he didn't mean that was his ultimate goal, and he still says that. But the political reality is that he has decided to take what he can get, despite the sweeping language of his original veto threat.

Although there remains considerable disagreement among Democrats in both the House and Senate on health care, the president would like to convey the idea that only Republican obstructionism now stands in the way of passage. "We have reached out to them, as was our responsibility to try to work together in a bipartisan fashion," he said in his news conference the other night, "and every time we have done it, they have moved away."

Addressing the Republicans, he asked: "If you don't like our approaches in the Senate and the House, what is your alternative?" Another practical reality, however, is that this Democratic-controlled Congress is not going to pass a Republican alternative. While working to advance one, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole has made clear his view that no bill would be better than what the Democrats finally come up with.

For a long time some Republicans seemed convinced that they could not afford politically simply to be against what the Democrats proposed. Now, however, important GOP voices are

strongly counseling that rather than push a Republican alternative that can't be enacted, the party will better spend its time trying to harpoon the Democrats' proposals, especially the House version by Democratic Majority Leader Dick Gephardt that comes much closer than the Mitchell version to Clinton's own earlier proposal.

William Kristol, Dan Quayle's former chief of staff, who has become a key spokesman for Republican conservatism, proposed in a memo that "the best achievable Republican health care result this year . . . is blocking passage of irredeemably bad Democratic legislation," meaning the Gephardt version. "We might as well get on with it," Kristol wrote, "and prepare ourselves for abuse we will suffer in the process."

Kristol now says he believes the president in his news conference seriously undercut Gephardt with House Democratic moderates -- and outraged House and Senate liberals -- by indicating he will settle for the blander Mitchell version.

Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour has weighed in with the notion that Clinton is playing the old salesman's bait-and-switch routine, hoping to "get a bill, any bill, through the Senate" as bait while the House passes the Gephardt version, and then switching to something closer to the Gephardt version in a House-Senate conference.

If Kristol is right about the problems Clinton is creating among House Democrats by his failure to give a stronger endorsement to the Gephardt approach, the whole Democratic strategy could be jeopardized. Many House Democrats fear being left out on a limb by voting for politically risky employer contribution requirements in Gephardt's bill, only to see them abandoned in conference with the Mitchell version, which does not have them.

Clinton is in a nightly television advertising blitz to rally public support for whatever comes out of the Democratic legislative cement mixer on health care. But he is now advancing proposals that fall short of what he said earlier the country needed, while insisting they're even better than what he wanted.

In Boston, they say of a glib person that "he could talk a dog off a meat wagon." If anyone can do it, it's probably Bill Clinton.

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