Why the rush?

August 16, 1994|By William Safire

Washington -- DEMOCRATS accuse Republicans of delaying crime and health bills to make President Clinton look bad. But the truth is Democrats are rushing to judgment to avoid having to heed the voice of the people in an election only 12 weeks away.

The crime bill, temporarily stymied by the gun lobby, is far from dead. That is not merely because a president and a majority leadership can use puissant patronage -- and a reprise of last year's "Don't kill my young presidency" -- to snatch back the votes of enough of the 58 recalcitrant House Democrats to save the party from gridlockjaw.

More to the political point, the crime bill has a good chance of passage because it has been presented as a "tough" measure, with prison-building, death-penalty and cop-subsidy elements emphasized, while its "soft" root-casuistry -- multibillion dollar social spending on midnight basketball -- has been downplayed. The bill exemplifies heavy-spending conservatism, an oxymoron hard to beat.

The health care push, on the contrary, is now seen by voters for what it is: a return to Great Societyism.

Hillary Clinton anointed elite task forces, worked in secret, to concoct a government takeover of a seventh of the American economy, financed by cigarette smoke and mirrors. Eighteen months later, her gurus have gone underground and not even her husband espouses the misbegotten "Clinton plan."

The ship of government health care is now frantically jettisoning baggage to stay afloat in Congress. Democrats in the House are waiting to see how many bags of taxes and coercive controls the Senate will toss overboard.

For George Mitchell, the swan-singing Democratic leader in the Senate, timing has become everything. Never mind waiting for the Congressional Budget Office to cost out the latest bills; forget about serious debate of a Republican alternative.

The reason for his urgency: Mr. Mitchell believes the Democrats will lose three or four Senate seats in November. He must get that legislation into harbor before the liberal ship sinks, an event scheduled for Election Day. Massive change must be irreversible before the anticipated reverses.

His own bill, with its employer mandate and 1.75 percent tax on everybody's health insurance premium, is not intended to be passed. Despite White House blather about thus-far-no-further, Mr. Mitchell's first fallback position was launched as a bill to set up a compromise with a group headed by Republican Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island.

Mr. Chafee has been placed at the head of a bipartisan group that has labeled itself "mainstream," not so subtly suggesting that conservative opposition to government-dominated medicine is extremist.

Ominously, Mr. Chafee is using Mr. Mitchell's liberal bill as his lodestar; meanwhile, Bob Dole is having fits because the renegade Republicans refuse to consider the conservative alternative. That signals a Mitchell-Chafee setup.

Beware the likely deal: Mr. Chafee's rump group comes up with a modified Mitchell bill, giving the Democrats enough votes to invoke cloture on any filibuster. Then the House would pass a Clintonite bill, pulling the House-Senate conferees back to the left, which Mr. Clinton would sign in the Return of the Comeback Kid. (Or, if Mr. Chafee's fixes are minor enough, the House would pass the liberal Senate bill.)

To prevent this deal, Mr. Chafee's Republican colleagues are telling him: "If we can prove how bad this Mitchell bill is in debate and stop it, we will take control of the Senate and offer health insurance reform in the spring."

If Sens. Mitchell and Chafee can't ram their bill through the Senate in a week or so, the House may go home to campaign.

Democratic liberals fear that expression of the popular will. That explains their rush to health judgment. Republicans -- even nonconservatives like Mr. Chafee -- should want voters to have a chance to influence the outcome of the most far-reaching legislation since the New Deal.

Democrats deny that the hurry is to make the president look xTC leaderly, and thereby to help Democrats avert losses in this fall's election. But their real reason for forcing congressional action on health care is inescapable: to beat the voters to the punch.

William Safire is a syndicated columnist.

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