Incumbents forever Three big measures: Health insurance, minimum wage and welfare reform attainable.

July 29, 1996

BEFORE CONGRESS recesses for the national conventions, it may actually send three major measures to President Clinton: health insurance reform, a rise in the minimum wage and the most sweeping changes in the welfare system since the New Deal. Moreover, Mr. Clinton is almost sure to sign the first two and is under intense pressure to swallow the third. He should.

As Republican challenger Bob Dole surveys this scene, it can hardly be reassuring. The Senate under Trent Lott of Mississippi is, with Democratic cooperation, building up a legislative record that eluded Mr. Dole when he was majority leader. Mr. Clinton is angling for two and possibly three glittering bill-signing ceremonies. And Republicans in rare control of Congress, worried about voter disapproval, are eager to show tangible results.

It is no secret in Washington, always an incumbents-protective society, that an expedient respite from gridlock makes the existing political line-up look somewhat better. To the extent this can be brought off in the next few days, Mr. Dole is the obvious loser. Thus, his reported hope that Mr. Clinton will cast his third welfare veto and open himself to charges of reneging on his 1992 pledge to "change welfare as we know it."

The breakthrough on health reform is good news. GOP House Ways and Means chairman Bill Archer, who worked out the deal with Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy, said "working Americans will soon be able to switch jobs without losing their health insurance even if they have a pre-existing medical condition."

The key to the health accord is a test program for the "medical savings accounts," that will allow 750,000 persons to get tax preferences on money put in IRA-style accounts for medical bills or a form of catastrophic health insurance. This issue held up agreement for three months. Democrats feared the House bill, with its full-fledged MSA plan, would create a two-tier system favorable to the wealthy while Republicans wanted to promote a private sector initiative.

If health insurance reform survives its last remaining hurdles, a 90-cent increase in the minimum wage to $5.15 is assured. Welfare reform is trickier, but still a promising replacement for a failed system that encourages trans-generational dependency. So let all three measures pass. Mr. Dole, as a veteran of Capitol Hill, may not be happy but will understand.

Pub Date: 7/29/96

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