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Valley Politicians Clash Over Health Care : Legislation: Philosophical struggle between Reps. Waxman and Moorhead reflects partisan polarization on House panel.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

After months of painstaking work on health care reform, the conflicting efforts of San Fernando Valley area Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Glendale) remain mired in a prolonged legislative stalemate--even as other proposals move toward the House and Senate floors.

In fact, the two veteran lawmakers reflect the partisan polarization that has prevented the Energy and Commerce Committee--on which both hold key leadership posts--from moving a bill. The panel, one of three in the House with jurisdiction over health care, may be bypassed entirely if the current logjam cannot be broken soon.

The biggest stumbling block between the two lawmakers, as well as the rest of the Energy and Commerce Committee, remains a requirement that employers pay for health care for employees. Waxman strongly favors this approach to achieve the universal coverage that President Clinton insists is essential; Moorhead opposes any such requirement on business.

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The ultimate goals of the lawmakers contrast as well. The liberal Waxman vows to hold out for a comprehensive overhaul and guaranteed coverage for all; the conservative Moorhead favors moving forward with only incremental insurance reforms.

At this point, they both stand in contrast to a bipartisan coalition of Senate moderates who are trying to hammer out a compromise.

Moorhead, the senior Republican on Energy and Commerce, says many citizens would shout “hooray” if Congress adjourns without passing a health care bill. He said the public is divided on health care reform generally but shows little enthusiasm for Clinton’s proposal.

Waxman disagrees. The longtime chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health and environment expressed cautious optimism that Clinton’s goal can still be reached in this session of Congress. But he acknowledged that time is growing short.

“It’s still probable that we’ll get a health care bill through but I can’t say so with any certainty,” Waxman said. “The failure to enact health care legislation, I think, is going to be a prospect that members won’t want to face as we approach the election” in November.

Efforts by Energy and Commerce Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), Waxman and other Democrats to persuade a majority of the 44-member committee to support a scaled-back version of Clinton’s plan have foundered. The panel’s leaders have been trying for weeks to round up more conservative Democratic members who are concerned about an overly bureaucratic approach and the burdens that would be imposed on small businesses.

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They need most of the Democrats because the 17 Republicans are united in opposition to anything that resembles Clinton’s proposal or, presumably, includes employer mandates.

Not surprisingly, Moorhead, who talks to Dingell regularly, and Waxman offer contrasting explanations for the impasse.

“The Republicans don’t want Clinton to have anything that’s called a health care bill that he can take credit for,” asserted Waxman, one of the House’s master tacticians. “The Republicans who understand health care policy and are ordinarily constructive are being told by their partisan leaders that they better not cooperate.”

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Not so, says Moorhead. He blamed the Democrats for refusing to allow a vote on a gradualist Republican-sponsored bill that includes such steps as preventing insurance companies from denying coverage to those who have pre-existing conditions or those who change jobs. It would require employers to offer--but not necessarily pay for--policies for their workers and allow employers to join health-care purchasing cooperatives to get lower rates from insurers.

Moorhead maintains that this bill would be passed by a coalition of Republicans and moderate to conservative Democrats if it was considered by the Energy and Commerce Committee.

“The reason the legislation hasn’t come before Congress is that they can’t get enough Democrats who will go for mandates,” Moorhead said. “They’ll blame anyone but themselves. But I can tell you, it will be their own fault.”

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In the meantime, the House Education and Labor Committee approved a modified version of Clinton’s plan last week that provides health insurance for all Americans and requires employers to pay 80% of the premiums for their workers. The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee passed a similar measure three weeks ago.

But, in a reflection of the increasingly partisan tone of the health-care debate, the House committee acted without any Republican support. Education and Labor is one of the chamber’s most liberal committees; the more conservative Energy and Commerce Committee, in contrast, is considered more representative of the House’s overall makeup.

If Energy and Commerce doesn’t move a bill, Waxman said, “we will work with the (Democratic) leadership and the other committees that have jurisdiction to fashion the legislation that will go to the House floor. It’s all very muddled at the moment.”

Waxman reacted warily to recent proposals advanced by colleagues trying to negotiate a compromise. These include a trigger mechanism whereby Congress would suspend the employer mandate for five years; then, if insurance reforms alone and voluntary efforts failed to achieve universal coverage, a mandate would automatically kick in.

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“The idea of a triggering-in mechanism to cover people under certain circumstances is not offensive to me if we can be assured that everybody’s going to be covered,” Waxman said.

“It’s not the way I would prefer to handle the legislation, but it’s a compromise we may have to accept if we get the assurance that we will have universal coverage.”

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Under another version of this proposal, Congress would have to reconsider the issue and vote on whether to impose the employer mandate if universal coverage wasn’t achieved initially.

Waxman was less enthusiastic about this approach. “If it has to come back, that’s meaningless,” he said.

Moorhead refused to endorse either approach. He said that anything that resembled Clinton’s plan “would be disastrous for the American people. It would put them under a socialized medical care system.”

Rather, he said, if the Democrats would help pass the insurance reforms in the Republican bills, “they would have solved 95% of the problem. You don’t need universality. You need to have health care available to all Americans. If some guy decides he doesn’t want health insurance but he has the money to take care of himself, you don’t need him covered.”

Waxman, however, said that without either an employer mandate or a tax increase or both, the money will not be available to pay for universal health care coverage.

“Until we basically cover all Americans, we can’t hold down increasing health care costs and the reforms won’t work, he said. “So, the sooner we get to that point, the better.”

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* DEBATE GROWS: The President defends his call for universal coverage. A1

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