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Health Care Will Wait for Labor Day Senate Recess

By Ann Devroy and Dana Priest
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, said Thursday that the Senate will recess without enacting health care legislation, effectively ending any chance of fulfilling President Clinton's hopes for comprehensive reform this year.

Both Mitchell and Clinton Thursday said the recess until after Labor Day does not mean the end of health care reform. But Democrats and Republicans across the political spectrum, including some of the president's strong defenders and many White House officials, said the epic legislative battle that began last fall when Clinton delivered to Congress his ambitious reform plan is now effectively over.

Most agreed that the only remaining hope is for modest regulatory measures and perhaps low-income subsidies when Congress reconvenes Sept. 12.

"There's a growing consensus that an incremental approach is all we can do," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., who has supported Clinton-style change. "A very legitimate question is, can you even do that? The clock is the 101st senator and has tremendous power around here, with elections" just eight weeks after Congress is scheduled to return.

"The moment of truth, when you have to face facts, has come this week," said Sen. Harris Wofford, D-Pa., whose 1991 upset victory propelled the health care issue into the national political arena. A supporter of broad-based reform, including the universal coverage sought by Clinton, Wofford said Thursday he believes a much scaled-back bill could pass and would be a "historic first installment ... that the president should sign."

Part of what strangled the White House hopes was the drawn-out combat this month over the crime bill, which dragged Clinton and many of his aides into a two-week battle, first in the House and this week in the Senate. Their vacation eaten away, senators on both sides of the aisle pressed hard to go home once the crime bill was dealt with.

Asked whether health care reform is now officially dead, Clinton said Thursday, "I wouldn't say that." In deference to Mitchell's efforts to continue informal discussions over the Labor Day recess, he added, "I think the less I say the better."

But privately, several officials involved in the effort at the White House acknowledged that whatever may emerge from here on will be so far from what the president once envisioned as to leave him with no choice but to opt for "strangling it at birth and calling for ... a new Congress with a fresh outlook." A senior official said this week that Clinton and his top aides have been "politically gaming" what to do about their lost hopes for major reform, with Clinton opposed to what he calls "half-steps" that do more harm to the health care system than good. The president and his aides have had several discussions about formally calling for a suspension of any further debate on health care in this session of Congress, but have opted in deference to Mitchell to avoid making the decision to totally throw in the towel until after the recess.