Bipartisan goal drives Kerrey on health care



WASHINGTON -- When the Senate finally got around to voting on amendments to the Democratic health care bill the other day, only one Democrat broke ranks on the first one offered, by Sen. Chris Dodd to ensure early benefits for pregnant women and infants -- Sen. Bob Kerrey.

This is the same Bob Kerrey who as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992 made national health insurance reform the centerpiece of his short-lived campaign. And he is the same Bob Kerrey who just a year ago reluctantly cast the critical vote that enabled President Clinton to win the deficit reduction fight on which it was said, as it is being said now regarding health care, survival of his presidency depended.

On that occasion, Kerrey pointedly said to Clinton from the Senate floor: "I could not and should not cast a vote that brings down your presidency." But at the same time he bluntly lectured the president: "Get back on the high road, Mr. President, where you are at your best." He recalled Clinton's earlier speech calling for deficit reduction through "shared sacrifice," noting, "It is not shared sacrifice for us to brag that we are only raising taxes on those who earned over $180,000," as Clinton had now proposed. "It is political revenge."

That same basic argument still drives Kerrey: the need to tell the American people clearly that grappling with the economic health of the country, as health care reform is supposed to do, will be costly and that they must expect to pay for it. And to be successful, he says now, the reform must be achieved on a bipartisan basis rather than striving chiefly for Democratic support, which barely carried the day for Clinton a year ago on deficit reduction.

He voted against the Dodd amendment, Kerrey says, because "It's Democratic trickery, this trying to gain partisan advantage, like saying we care about kids and the Republicans don't." It is, he says, "bad policy and bad politics to put a benefit out there and argue it's going to be cost-free."

The Republican leadership is just as guilty in pursuing a partisan tack, Kerrey says, "misrepresenting [Senate Majority Leader George] Mitchell's willingness to make changes. There are Republicans with the smell of blood [for a defeated Clinton] in their nostrils." But it was simply not good politics to start out with an amendment like Dodd's, he says, that clearly painted those who voted against it -- 41 of 43 Republicans along with Kerrey -- as heartless toward prospective mothers and their babies.

Not surprisingly in this light, Kerrey has joined the "mainstream coalition" of as many as 20 Republicans and Democrats who have been working diligently on an alternative to the Democratic bill written by Mitchell. Unlike the Kerrey of a year ago who stayed on the fence until he was conspicuously identified as the one senator who could "save" Clinton's presidency, the Nebraskan says now he is committed to vote against the Mitchell bill as now constituted and will not let himself get in the position of his vote being make-or-break for Clinton.

Kerrey professes to see Clinton as a president who still believes in "shared sacrifice" but appears to have lost sight of the central cost factor. He recalls that the president had originally warned that "health care could bankrupt America, and now he comes and says we're going to spend more" with a range of benefits for which financing is unspecific.

Kerrey says it is critical now for Mitchell and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole to get together and embrace the product of the bipartisan "mainstream coalition," and agree now to pass something less than Clinton wants, but "significant" nonetheless in giving more Americans secure coverage they don't have now.

The Nebraska senator's observations are clearly colored by his chairing of a presidential commission reviewing the range of entitlement programs -- those in which benefits are locked in by law. The commission is to report its recommendations to Clinton by Dec. 15.

White House insiders profess bafflement over what makes Bob Kerrey tick. But he no doubt wonders in turn why they're baffled.

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