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Senate Liberals Fight Further Erosion of Health Bill : Legislation: Mitchell is warned to ‘not give up the ballgame’ in his search for compromise. Focus is on phased-in employer mandate.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Senate liberals warned Monday that they will fight any efforts to weaken the health care reform bill offered by Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), particularly the controversial employer mandate that takes effect in eight years if insurance coverage is not expanded voluntarily.

While much attention has been focused lately on moderate groups of senators in search of a health care compromise, the liberals served notice that their votes should not be taken for granted.

“We’re concerned that (Mitchell) not give up the ballgame,” Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) told a news conference. “There is still a great chance for passage of a strong bill in this Congress. We don’t want to emasculate it.”

The Senate is now the focus of the health care debate, with the House having put aside the issue indefinitely while it struggles to revive crime legislation defeated last week.

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The main health care bill awaiting consideration in the House is a proposal by Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) to require all employers to provide coverage for their workers and pay 80% of the cost of an average insurance plan. Small business organizations bitterly oppose the employer mandate and their concerns are being echoed increasingly by members of Congress, who worry that a new government mandate could cost jobs.

In an effort to defuse business opposition and assemble a winning coalition, Mitchell has proposed voluntary steps, including financial subsidies, to encourage companies and individuals to buy health insurance. If 95% of all Americans are not covered by the year 2000, a mandate would take effect in 2002. All employers with more than 25 workers in states falling short of the 95% target would be required to provide coverage, paying at least 50% of the cost of buying health insurance for their workers.

This so-called trigger is vital for liberals, who are skeptical of a voluntary movement toward universal coverage.

The group of about 10 Democrats represented by five of their colleagues in Monday’s meeting with Mitchell are adamant that it remain in the bill. “We would be very uneasy with further weakening,” Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) told the news conference.

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“There comes a point where you whittle everything down and you don’t have health insurance reform,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) said the group also insists that the final bill retain the option for a state to create its own single-payer system in which the state government would collect insurance premiums, decide on benefits and provide payments to doctors and hospitals.

“There is a movement afoot by large companies and insurers to knock it out, and there will be a huge fight on this issue,” Wellstone said. Corporations that operate nationally and are self-insured are now exempt from state or federal regulation of their health care plans.

Those corporations do not want any law that would allow individual states to have the power to oversee corporate health insurance programs.

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The liberals also are fearful that Mitchell, in an effort to win votes from Republicans or moderate Democrats, may drop the bill’s provisions for long-term care services for those with chronic or crippling health conditions.

Meanwhile, Senate floor debate droned on Monday for the fifth day, without any concrete action and no agreement between the Democratic and Republican leaders for a schedule for voting on the dozens of amendments certain to be offered.

“The last time we went to war it didn’t take this long,” said Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). Republican spokesmen indicated that many of their party’s senators plan to speak extensively in the debate, and Mitchell continued consultations with groups as well as individual senators in search of an elusive majority.

But later in the day, Mitchell threatened to keep the Senate in session 24 hours a day starting today if Republicans do not allow votes on amendments to begin.

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“If there is going to be delay, then the senators who are going to delay will simply have to be here around the clock,” he said.

Although Democrats in Congress seem dispirited because health care has become bogged down in legislative quicksand, President Clinton said Monday that history is on their side.

“In fighting for Social Security and so much else, President (Franklin D.) Roosevelt knew that the American people always would have a personal stake in overcoming the status quo when the need was great enough,” he said at a ceremony at which he signed a bill making the Social Security Administration an independent agency.

“That is something we should all remember as we go into the next few weeks, as we delay the August recess, as we struggle to come to grips with the challenges of this age--the challenge of crime, the challenge of health care,” he said.

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In 1935, Clinton noted, Social Security “as we know it nearly died in a congressional committee, as senators considered stripping away the old-age pension. Congress almost left town with this and other critical work unfinished. But they found the grit to work on through the summer of 1935, when they didn’t have as much air-conditioning as we have today.”

Times staff writer John M. Broder contributed to this story.


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