An Ill Wind From Chicago Could Topple Clinton's Health Plan

Bill Clinton's proposal to overhaul the nation's health-care system is falling apart on Capitol Hill. The House Ways & Means Committee has begun putting together a bill that all but ignores Clinton's approach. An Energy & Commerce subcommittee is so badly split that it can't even get started drafting a measure. And this is the point in the process where the White House expected Ways & Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski to pull together a consensus.

Unfortunately for the Prez, Rostenkowski is preoccupied with his own problems. The Chicago Democrat is the target of a two-year grand jury investigation into his congressional- and campaign-office finances. And he's fighting for his political life in a Mar. 15 primary. A recent Chicago Tribune poll showed him leading a five-man field with 27%, with surging state Senator John J. Cullerton at 23%. Rostenkowski is left hoping that fading challenger Dick Simpson, who calls him "absolutely corrupt," siphons enough votes from Cullerton to give the incumbent a narrow win. "I think he's on his last legs," frets Chicago resident Albert K. Yoshimura, a longtime supporter of "Mr. Chairman."

If Rosty loses, he'll finish the year as a lame duck. But if he's hit with a felony indictment, he must turn his chairmanship over to Representative Sam Gibbons (D-Fla.), a prickly lawmaker who is sometimes reluctant to compromise. Either way, "this is a terrible blow to Clinton," says American University historian Allan J. Lichtman.

Reconstructing the health-care system would be hard enough under the best of circumstances. Democrats are splintered into three major camps and stitching together a majority requires the skill of a surgeon. Rostenkowski has honed his technique over more than a decade as Ways & Means chairman. His goal is always the same: Put together a bill that can pass and don't get hung up on ideology or details. "He knows when to swerve and when to hang tough," says one House Democratic strategist. "With Rosty, you can feel confident that he'll pull something out of his hat."

NO POWER PLAY. The Rosty method: Ask members what they want and whether they'll vote for the bill if they get it. Once the chairman has a rough consensus, he puts forward a bill under his own name and shields fellow lawmakers from the heat that the details always generate.

Rostenkowski's problems probably won't kill health-care reform because too many lawmakers have a stake in passing something. But a weakened Rosty would boost the influence of players less loyal to Clinton, especially Energy & Commerce Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), who prefers a plan closer to Canada's single-payer system, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who wants welfare reform to take precedence over the health plan.

With Rosty's woes and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) already a lame duck, Democrats can't play power politics as they did during the 1993 budget fight. "It will be almost impossible for the Democrats to muscle a bill through" without Republican support, says a House GOP strategist. What's likely is a more modest, bipartisan compromise.

Rostenkowski remains Clinton's best hope of keeping his proposal from being gutted. That's why the President, despite his own ethics problems, was willing to stump for the beleaguered chairman on the snowy streets of Chicago. Without Rosty, Clinton told Chicago voters, "we would not be able to do the things that we have to do to meet our obligations to the future in health care, welfare reform, and many other areas." Such praise often trips off the Presidential tongue, even for second-rate lawmakers. But this time, Clinton's warning may turn out to be all too true.

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