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For GOP, Maladies Linger in Democratic Health Plans : Politics: Republican leaders go on TV for an hour to denounce reform proposals. But an intraparty battle rages off stage over strategy.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Republican leaders denounced the Democratic approach to health reform Monday night in a nationally televised policy forum amid an intense behind-the-scenes debate over what strategy the GOP should pursue on the issue that now dominates the national political landscape.

The hourlong program, carried live by C-SPAN and various satellite links around the country, was heralded as an attempt to show Americans that the GOP has its own solution to the nation’s health care problems. But most of the evening was spent depicting what Republicans say the nation has to fear from the remedies proposed by Clinton and congressional Democrats.

Republican House Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour spearheaded the assault, contending that Democratic-backed reforms would lower the quality of care, limit its availability, raise taxes and prices, lower wages and eliminate jobs.

“A law that hurts the quality of medical care is a serious risk to your health,” said Barbour, summing up the theme of the evening.

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But even as the GOP leaders sought to present a unified picture to the television audience, the intraparty argument over strategy raged in cloakrooms and caucus rooms.

“There have been more meetings on this issue involving more people and more organizations than anything I have seen in all my years in this city,” said Republican political consultant Eddie Mahe, who came to Washington more than 20 years ago as executive director of the Republican National Committee.

Some Republicans, fearful of being labeled obstructionists and supportive of some reforms, want to stress their willingness to join in a bipartisan package of cost controls, though they support a more limited role for government than President Clinton and the Democratic congressional leaders.

But others believe that any health care measure that passes will be labeled a Clinton achievement, giving Democrats a huge partisan boost in this election year. “If health care passes, then gridlock is broken and Clinton wins,” said GOP pollster Bill McInturff, who has been advising Republican leaders on the issue. “But if it doesn’t, then Democrats who argue that it will hurt Republicans are crazy, because it’s their President and their issue.”

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Among those who are believed to be determined to resist Democratic pressure to act is Gingrich. “If we can’t get market-driven reform we will oppose anything being done this year,” Gingrich told other party leaders at a strategy session last week, according to one participant in the meeting.

“I think that both public opinion and Republican opinion have been moving in the direction of believing that any reform legislation that is likely to come out of the Congress is going to be bad for the country,” said Bill Kristol, head of the Project for the Republican Future, an advocacy and strategy group.

On the television program, Republicans complained that the Democrats are in too much of a hurry to push health care legislation through before Congress leaves for its summer recess in two weeks. “You are bound to do very dumb things when you legislate in such a hasty manner,” Gingrich said. Other Republican lawmakers on hand were Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood, and Florida Sen. Connie Mack.

Packwood pointed out that some provisions of Democratic reform proposals would not go into effect until the next century.

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Mack said that many of the elderly citizens in his state are concerned about Democratic proposals to cap spending on Medicare. “What they are afraid about is that, when you put a cap on how much can be spent, somebody has to give up something. What we are talking about is the potential damage that can be done to the best health care system in the world.”

Republicans also used the program to tout their own reform proposals, principally the “American option” bill, co-sponsored by Packwood and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas. Barbour said that the Dole-Packwood measure would control costs, expand coverage and guarantee portability of insurance all without raising taxes or increasing the deficit.

Republicans also complained about the failure of any Democrats to back their “American option” plan. "(Senate Majority Leader George J.) Mitchell has been leaning hard on Democrats not to commit to us,” said Packwood. “They feel that if they cannot pass a Democratic bill it will be a disaster in the election.”

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, some Republicans see the crucial test in health care reform facing them in the Senate. They expect Mitchell to try to push through legislation that will include at least a watered-down version of a mandate for some employers to pay for their workers’ insurance.

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With that accomplished, as this scenario goes, Democrat leaders would try to prod their members in the more liberal House into adopting a more stringent employer mandate provision. That would send the legislation to a joint House-Senate conference where Republicans fear the odds would favor the House version.


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