Democrats Downplay Rostenkowski Role


With skepticism mounting about the fate of the health care reform initiative, key Democrats tried Sunday to minimize the damage from House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski's looming legal troubles.

The committee "is going to get a bill out no matter what happens, and we're going to have it on the floor in July," House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) predicted. "The committee has already done a lot on health care. We're going to get it done."

Gephardt and others, appearing on ABC-TV's "This Week With David Brinkley," said that there are many forces working to ensure passage of a health care reform bill this congressional session and that the legislation's future does not depend solely on the chairman of the powerful House panel.

Health care reform "is bigger than any one person," said White House senior adviser George Stephanopoulos, adding: "There is great momentum right now to make sure we get health care reform. . . . We're confident we will be able to work with whoever is chairman of the committee. . . . We're going to get this done this year."

Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) has a Tuesday deadline for accepting a plea bargain that would require his resignation and a probable jail term. The alternative would be an indictment and potential trial on corruption charges. There are allegations that he has taken illegal payments from the House post office and listed employees on his payroll who did not do any work.

He has denied any wrongdoing and, according to sources, is now inclined to fight the charges. Under Democratic caucus rules, he would have to abandon his chairmanship if indicted.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, the third-ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, said on the ABC program that Rostenkowski's skill was in "being able to fully understand the needs of the different regions, the needs of members who had to vote for (health care reform). . . . "

Rangel insisted that "with the presumption of innocence still going," he expected Rostenkowski to continue to work to ensure passage of a health care measure "because he is really committed to this piece of legislation."

But House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), speaking on CBS-TV's "Face the Nation," said that recent Republican House victories, particularly in Kentucky and Oklahoma, signal more problems for passage of President Clinton's reform bill than the potential loss of the influential chairman.

Those Republicans ran against Clinton's policies, including his plan for overhauling the nation's health care system.

Gingrich said he was concerned that Rostenkowski might get a lenient plea bargain through Democratic influence. He cited "the weird situation where the President's lawyer is negotiating with the President's Justice Department on behalf of the President's health care leader in the House."

Robert S. Bennett, who is Rostenkowski's lawyer, is also representing Clinton in a sexual-harassment lawsuit filed by a former Arkansas state employee.

Gingrich said he was worried that the result would be "some kind of rigged deal where 15 or 20 felony counts magically get reduced to a misdemeanor to allow him to stay in charge of health care."

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