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Clinton Assails Health Care Foes : Presidency: GOP is accused of rebuffing efforts at compromise. He strongly defends Mitchell’s reform bill as meeting tests of political reality and practical impact.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Clinton defended his health care reform efforts against criticism from both right and left Wednesday night--accusing Republicans of repeatedly evading efforts at compromise and saying that the bill proposed by Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine should be good enough to satisfy liberals.

Clinton strongly defended Mitchell’s effort, which some Democratic liberals--particularly in the House--have criticized. These critics have said that Mitchell’s bill falls short of the goal of covering all Americans. But the President argued that it meets the tests of both political reality and practical impact.

“I believe it will achieve universal coverage for all Americans and that is the one criterion I have set out,” Clinton declared.

Under Mitchell’s bill, employers would not be required to provide coverage for all workers if a combination of insurance reforms and subsidies succeeded in covering 95% of Americans by the year 2000. If the 95% goal is not met, a mandate would be applied state-by-state.

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Critics on the left have argued that the 95% goal falls short of universal coverage. But Clinton denied that, saying--if the 95% goal can be met--"that is evidence that we can achieve full coverage in the near future” without resorting to a mandate.

Although the debate over whether Mitchell’s 95% constitutes universal coverage has attracted considerable attention in Washington, as a practical matter the question may be moot. All health care analysts agree that a small percentage of the population would fall through the cracks in any program, even one that in theory mandated 100% coverage.

In addition, as Republicans have warned, Clinton and his aides hope that--if the Mitchell bill or something like it gets through the Senate--it could be melded with a more liberal House bill into a somewhat broader package.

Defending Mitchell, Clinton sought to inject a note of political realism into the discussion. “Remember how a bill becomes a law,” he admonished reporters. “Sen. Mitchell has to find a majority for a bill that can pass the Senate.

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“The Senate task is very hard,” he said, adding that Mitchell “has done a fine job with a bill that I personally believe will reach universal coverage.”

“The plan I originally proposed has been changed and much of it for the better,” Clinton said--an unusual admission for a President on a major initiative.

Clinton had scheduled his prime time press conference, only the third such night-time session in his 18 months in office, in hopes that he could bolster public support for his health reform initiatives--in part by reminding Americans of successes he has had elsewhere.

Indeed, White House officials initially had thought of scheduling a prime time speech, opting for the press conference only after indications that the commercial television networks would not have given live coverage to a speech.

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In a five-minute statement that opened the nearly hourlong questioning, Clinton recounted his claims of progress, saying that the economy had improved on his watch and “the road ahead looks good.”

As he did so, Clinton also tried to undermine the credibility of his Republican opponents, accusing them of having been wrong last year on his economic program and chastising them for their stance on health reform.

Citing figures on declining deficits, increasing new jobs and decreasing unemployment since the passage of his economic plan a year ago Friday, Clinton noted that “our opponents said if that plan passed, the sky would fall, unemployment would go up, the deficit would explode. Well, they were wrong.”

On health care, he added, “we have reached out to them” but, “every time we have done it, they have moved away.”

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“At one time, when we started this debate and I said I wanted universal coverage, many members in Congress (of both parties) stood up and clapped,” he said. “At one time, there were two dozen Republican senators on a bill to give universal coverage to all Americans. They have all abandoned that bill.”

Some two dozen Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, originally had co-sponsored a bill introduced last September by Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.). That bill would have required all individuals to buy insurance but would not have required companies to pay for it. Even Chafee has now abandoned the bill.

“If you don’t like our approaches in the Senate and the House, what is your alternative?” Clinton asked.

Dole, speaking to reporters after the press conference, said that he did not rule out compromise. “We could still put a bill together. I don’t think it’s over,” he said. But he criticized Mitchell’s proposal, saying that it would rely too heavily on government.

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As Clinton has done in the past, he tried to steer clear of questions about legislative detail, saying that “it is terribly important in this debate, when these issues tend to be complex and detailed, to keep our eye on the central reality here, which is how do we solve the problem?”

To provide an example of that reality, he introduced John Cox and Daniel Lumley, two of the several hundred people who rode buses into Washington from across the country this week to promote health reform. Describing difficulties with the present health care system, Clinton said:

“If the program works for John Cox and for Daniel Lumley, I’ll be for it.”

Earlier in the day, Cox had provided the emotional high point as the President and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton welcomed the bus riders to the White House with a rally on the south lawn of the White House.

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Cox, a broadcaster with a Christian radio station from Athens, Tex., told the crowd about burying his wife, Jan, who recently died of stomach cancer. Mrs. Cox had delayed seeing a doctor because her problems had been deemed to be the result of a pre-existing condition, White House officials said.

“We buried her Monday and I’m here today to tell Congress that right is right,” Cox said. “Unless we can ensure universal health coverage to all Americans, then life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for some is just a dream.”

After wiping a tear from his eye, Clinton embraced Cox. “Congress has to decide whether it’s going to listen to the insurance companies or to Jan Cox’s last wish,” he told the crowd.

The decisions on health care are difficult, Clinton said during the rally, but “the members of the United States Congress hired on, just like I did. We didn’t say: ‘Vote for me in a representative form of government and I will make all the necessary decisions to solve the problems of the country except those that are difficult, controversial and make people mad.’ ”

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“When you’ve got to do something that everybody wants to do, but it’s not easy to do, the people that hired on have to make the decisions.”

While Clinton sought to focus attention on the impact health reform would have on individuals and families, members of Congress remained mired in the hard details of actually turning ideas into laws. And the ability of Congress to finish work on legislation before its scheduled adjournment date this October seemed increasingly uncertain.

Current plans are for both houses to vote on legislation before adjourning for their August recess but the start of that recess, at a minimum, now seems likely to be delayed. At one point, rumors swept Capitol Hill that House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) might put off House votes until September. But Foley spokesman Jeff Biggs insisted that the Speaker will not allow Congress to leave town without voting--the same position Mitchell has taken.

Further delay of the bill could be fatal.

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The schedule already appears to pose an almost impossible challenge, with lawmakers being called upon to pass the massive and controversial legislation, work out a House-Senate compromise in a conference committee and approve the final version before adjourning for the year in October.

The most immediate threat of delay appears to be the inability of the Congressional Budget Office, with its full-time staff of only 17 employees, to keep up with the avalanche of demands for cost estimates of the House and Senate leadership proposals, as well as other alternatives that lawmakers hope to bring to a vote.

CBO Director Robert D. Reischauer huddled with House Democratic leaders and Mitchell late into the afternoon. Asked whether he can produce the necessary cost estimates within the next few weeks, Reischauer replied: “There is no answer. That’s all.”

Times staff writers Karen Tumulty and Edwin Chen contributed to this story.

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