Health Reform: Delay Could Cost Clinton Dearly

When Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton trek to Capitol Hill on Oct. 27 to deposit a 1,600-page health-care bill on Congress' doorstep, the stirring reform drive the White House launched in September will get a badly needed second wind. But Clinton will still have to pay a big price for the month that his economic advisers spent wrangling over the plan's financing.

Public support for Clinton's health blueprint has dipped, from 56% to 51%, a recent poll shows. And opponents of Clinton's heavily regulatory approach Republicans and Democrats alike have used the respite to build a head of steam for their own schemes.

The Clintons' trip to the Hill will be the first step in what some White House aides call a "relaunch" of the reform drive. To avoid numbing the public with details, the White House is preparing a new 250-page summary. In the works: a book for general readers, probably bearing the First Couple's names, in stores by Christmas. And Administration officials will return to the stump, armed with details and budget estimates they lacked during the September send-off.

LITTLE MO. Photo ops and speeches should put health reform back on the front pages but that may not be enough to regain the impetus. Congress' health committees, itching to start work on a bill originally promised for May delivery, are annoyed at Administration witnesses such as Health & Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala, who used the first round of hearings to discuss philosophy instead of details.

Opponents, meanwhile, have put their own spin on the pause in the health sellathon. Liberals say Clinton hasn't delivered the details because his scheme can't match reality. "It's like unicorns we all know what they look like, but you can't find anyone who's ever seen one," says Representative Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), chief sponsor of a government-run "single-payer" approach. From the right, Senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) paints Clinton's blueprint in lurid red. "Middle America is not buying into Clinton's brand of socialized medicine," declares Gramm, who favors tax breaks for "medical savings accounts."

These flank attacks don't faze the Clintonites. They're much more concerned about the ground gained by Representative Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who has rounded up a bipartisan group of 50 House co-sponsors for his version of the health overhaul. Cooper's plan shares Clinton's insurance reforms and health-insurance purchasing pools. But it is much more appealing to business because it avoids Clinton's price controls and his requirement that employers pay premiums for all workers. Cooper claims his bill a 300-page lightweight "achieves most of the President's goals with less bureaucracy and less cost."

That's an attractive combination, especially for moderate Democrats. So while White House aides are wooing Senator John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), the author of a similar measure, they're waging war against Cooper. His bill "is more right-wing than the Republicans and stupid to boot," says an Administration official, who argues that Chafee's plan will go further toward universal coverage. In the Senate, Democratic leaders are warning that the Cooper plan would leave a reform-hungry public disappointed. "You have to make sure [Democrats] know, in the clearest possible way, what they're really committing themselves to if they sign on with Cooper," says a Hill strategist.

Some infighting was inevitable in such an ambitious effort. But Cooper and other reformers couldn't have seized the health-care spotlight if the White House had had a second act ready to follow Clinton's boffo speech in September. The price of delay: Clinton will have to share the stage from now on.