• U.S.

Bending A Promise

5 minute read
Michael Duffy/Washington

Read my pen. Americans admired Bill Clinton’s nerve and determination last January when he told Congress he was willing to compromise on every aspect of his proposal except one: universal coverage. “If you send me legislation that does not guarantee every American private health insurance that can never be taken away,” he told Congress in January, “you will force me to take this pen, veto the legislation, and we’ll come right back here and start all over again.”

But this is no time for bravado. In an attempt to jump-start a stalled legislative process, the President last week indicated to key Senators that he might be willing to accept a much slower transition to universal coverage than he had originally proposed. And instead of requiring all employers to provide health insurance to workers by 1998, Clinton added, they could be merely encouraged to do so for a few years. If universal coverage didn’t result, he suggested, his so-called employer mandates would finally kick in. “I made clear,” the President later said, “that I was very flexible on how to solve this problem.”

Clinton’s latest display of elasticity hardly compares on the flip-flop scale to George Bush’s welshing on “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Still, the stakes for the President are daunting: he must deliver health-care reform this fall to keep his presidency afloat, but he must redefine “universal coverage” to deliver reform. If he gives away too little on that issue, the legislation will falter; if he gives away too much, he may lose liberals who support his plan and get blamed for breaking his unusual veto promise as well.

Nonetheless, Clinton’s willingness to bend is the best indication that he may see a reform package on his desk this fall. For weeks, Senate Finance Committee chairman Daniel Patrick Moynihan had been trying to convince the White House that he lacked the votes to pass any plan, much less the Administration’s grandiose scheme. The sticking point has been Clinton’s employer mandates, which would require employers to pay 80% of the cost of health insurance for all full-time workers. Fearing depressed profits and warning of layoffs, small-business lobbyists generated enough opposition to effectively kill that provision. What Moynihan then needed was a signal from Clinton that he was prepared to accept some other mechanism to bring about Clinton’s goal of universal coverage.

Last week the White House finally got Moynihan’s message: “We were running out of time,” explained an Administration official. “It’s time to make this thing happen.” The new vehicle, called a “trigger,” was proposed by Louisiana Senator John Breaux, a moderate Democrat who is developing a reputation as a breaker of logjams. Breaux wants to postpone the employer mandate for small companies until the end of 1997; in the meantime new subsidies and tax incentives would encourage small businesses to insure their workers. If small companies, defined as those with 25 employees or less, failed to insure 97% of their workers by then, the mandate would be “triggered.”

At a White House meeting last Tuesday, Clinton, Moynihan and Republican Senator Robert Packwood debated whether the trigger would bring about universal coverage. Packwood argued that the trigger should not be automatic, that Congress should be required to approve the mandates before they go into effect. At this, Clinton balked. Anything that requires another act of Congress, the President said, was unacceptable. The next step was to bring in technical experts on the Senate Finance Committee, who huddled late last week with Administration officials to design a trigger that both Democrats and Republicans can live with. But it’s a measure of Clinton’s perilous position that his modest concession was enough to anger liberals who have backed his plan for months. Democratic Senators Ted Kennedy, Jay Rockefeller and Tom Daschle led a press conference on Thursday to insist on universal coverage. “Why are we spending our time trying to come up with 10 different ways,” asked Rockefeller, “to not do what the American people have clearly stated they want us to do?”

Sensing renewed momentum by the White House, conservative Republicans who have opposed health-care reform for months once more mounted an all-out attack. After Democrats in the House Ways and Means Committee tried to build a coalition with tax cuts and other sweeteners, House minority whip Newt Gingrich told colleagues to vote against amendments designed to broaden support for reform. “These guys smell blood,” said a top Republican Senate aide. “Republicans believe they are inches away from handing this President a major, major defeat.” Some in Clinton’s camp, too, would rather fight than compromise. But for now, Clinton is betting on a deal. The Republicans may soon seize the moment, since both parties are playing with fire if they fail to find a middle way.


CREDIT: From a telephone poll of 800 adult Americans taken for TIME/CNN on June 15-16 by Yankelovich Partners Inc. Sampling error is plus or minus 3.5% Not Sures omitted

CAPTION:Do you favor or oppose Clinton’s health-care reform plan?

Should the government guarantee health care for all Americans?

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com