Introducing herself as “a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a woman,” Hillary Rodham Clinton bedazzled two House committees Tuesday by demonstrating an unflappable command of the nation’s complex health care problems and an unshakable conviction that the Administration has the solution.
Though she revealed virtually no new details about the health care proposal that President Clinton outlined in a speech to Congress last week, she proved herself to be all the White House had hoped--a star saleswoman for the health care plan that she spent eight months helping to develop.
Only the third First Lady to testify before Congress, Mrs. Clinton fielded questions for more than four hours in separate appearances before the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which will play crucial roles as health reform legislation moves through Congress.
The First Lady was complimented and congratulated by virtually every lawmaker who questioned her. She received an ovation from both Democrats and Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee.
Where even the most junior sub-Cabinet officer generally is accompanied by a legion of staff members and briefing books while testifying before congressional committees, Mrs. Clinton sat at each witness table alone, with a small sheaf of papers and a cup of tea as her only fortification.
Yet she never seemed to lack a fact when she needed one, whether it was the relative costs of providing Medicare in New Haven and Boston or the rate of health coverage in Hawaii.
When Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.) read the names of experts who believe that the Administration has exaggerated the number of uninsured, she cited from memory a study debunking that idea and predicting that the number soon could be even higher than the Administration has estimated.
“We ought to submit your name for ‘Jeopardy,’ ” Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) told her.
Mrs. Clinton liberally applied ego strokes as well, nodding attentively through dozens of speeches and congratulating one member after another for asking excellent and perceptive questions.
She spoke at length of how Energy and Commerce Chairman John D. Dingell’s lawmaker father had started the drive toward health reform a half-century ago (with legislation referred to in history books as the Murray-Wagner-Dingell bill but in her testimony as Dingell-Murray-Wagner).
Yet even as the lawmakers gushed and purred, they revealed deep doubts about many of the aspects of the Administration plan, particularly whether it could produce the savings that Mrs. Clinton promised.
Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), though one of the most ardent supporters of the Administration plan, expressed misgivings over its requirement that all employers, no matter how small, shoulder the lion’s share of their employees’ health insurance costs.
“I have concerns about how your plan will affect the many small employers in my district,” Rostenkowski said. “We must assure that health care reform does not impose an unfair or crippling burden on struggling small employers.”
Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield) asked her to “join me today in promising the American people that no new benefits will be adopted and implemented until after real and sufficient, banked savings have been achieved.”
She answered by vowing that “the savings go hand in hand with the benefits.”
Her warm reception demonstrated an acceptance of the role that Mrs. Clinton has carved for herself. It was little more than a year ago that Republicans demonized her at their party convention. On Tuesday, their praise was almost as thick as that of the Democrats.
But none was as lavish as that of Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), who declared her appearance “a special moment for the committee and, I think, a very special moment for women in this country, including my wife and two daughters.”
In marked contrast to her perpetually tardy husband, Mrs. Clinton showed up early for her morning appearance before the Ways and Means Committee--something that Rostenkowski joked was “very unusual.” Equally unusual, the committee, with its members aware that a battery of television cameras would await them, was there on time as well.
At the hearing’s close, Rostenkowski congratulated Mrs. Clinton as “a marvelous witness.” His voice broke with emotion as he said: “One of the reasons I ran for reelection was so that I could try in my little way to help solve this problem. I think you and your husband are certainly going to be catalysts in this.”
Mrs. Clinton will be called upon to repeat her performance three more times, before the Senate Labor and Human Resources and the House Education and Labor committees today and the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday.
The two first ladies who previously appeared before congressional committees had confined their appeals to far narrower issues than the overhaul of the nation’s health care system. Eleanor Roosevelt testified twice on the migration of laborers during the Dust Bowl era and World War II and Rosalynn Carter testified on a reappraisal of mental health policy.
The Administration’s effort to sell its plan also received a setback Tuesday when the powerful American Medical Assn. launched a mass mailing to the nation’s 710,000 physicians and medical students, disseminating a 15-page analysis in which it expressed “serious reservations” about Clinton’s plan.
While praising the President’s broader goals, such as achieving universal health coverage by requiring contributions from all employers and employees, the AMA said that Clinton’s plan “would limit choices by patients and physicians, undermine the quality of medical services, and lead to federal control of medical education and the physician work force.”
In a cover letter signed by its three top officials, the AMA also expressed its concern about “the degree of centralized regulation in a proposal that is intended to be a competitive, market-based approach.”
The 300,000-member AMA, the nation’s largest group of doctors, said that the plan might “significantly” limit the medical education opportunities for students and hamper their ability to choose a specialty.
The organization also expressed its opposition to the establishment of a national medical spending budget and said that the government-designed standard benefits package in Clinton’s agenda is “inadequate” and “does not appear to use most current data.”
Times staff writer Edwin Chen contributed to this story.