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Mitchell Concedes Death of Reform for '94

By Karen Tumulty and Edwin Chen
Los Angeles Times

Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, formally pronounced health care reform dead for the year Monday, rendering a final, if somewhat anticlimactic, verdict reflecting a reality that has been apparent for weeks.

Yet there was an undeniable poignancy to the moment as the retiring majority leader, having forfeited a chance to be on the Supreme Court so he could fight for a bill he saw as the crowning achievement of his legislative career, conceded: "The combination of the insurance industry on the outside and a majority of Republicans on the inside proved to be too much to overcome."

President Clinton vowed to renew his drive next year, despite the fact that an expected surge in the number of Republicans in Congress could make it even more difficult. "This journey is far, far from over," he said in a statement.

Mitchell's decision effectively dooms House efforts as well, since no legislation can be passed without both houses.

Clinton handed off the issue to Congress a little more than a year ago, offering as a starting point a 1,342-page bill produced by a task force that had been headed by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. It has preoccupied Capitol Hill ever since - to the exclusion, many Democrats and Republicans concede, of most other meaningful accomplishments in the latter half of the term that is scheduled to end in two weeks.

It began as an effort to produce the most important piece of legislation since the Great Depression - one that would revamp one-seventh of the U.S. economy and provide health coverage to the almost 40 million Americans who now lack it. In the end, warring factions were unable to agree even upon a modest set of changes in insurance industry practices that are almost universally condemned, such as those that make it impossible for people with known illnesses to get coverage.

Mitchell tried to put the blame squarely on GOP opposition, in obvious hope that the issue would return to haunt Republicans in the fall election. Though the Democrats hold a majority of votes, they do not have the 60 they would need to block a filibuster.

However, even the Democrats themselves were sharply divided on the issue, and it was far from certain that Mitchell could have garnered even the 50 votes needed to pass any of the alternatives he was considering in recent days.

Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., proclaimed that the reform effort died because the American people rejected it - understanding correctly, he said, that President Clinton's vision of health reform was one of dizzying complexity, strangling bureaucracy and wanton spending.

"We saw democracy in action," Dole said.

Mitchell noted that there are "several good starting points" for health legislation next year. Proposals on the table include a package of insurance reforms and subsidies aimed at expanding coverage to about half the uninsured, as well as a plan that would increase coverage of pregnant women and children.

In addition, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., on Monday night said he had yet another alternative: a package of "modest and sensible changes" that he will lay before his committee Tuesday. It focuses on increasing the tobacco tax, making health insurance costs for the self-employed fully deductible, expanding Medicaid for pregnant women and children, and several health insurance reforms.

Meanwhile, the advocates of health reform are grappling with dejection, anger, bitterness and disbelief. But they have also begun trying to cull the lessons from which they hope to stage a political resurrection.

If they do, the campaign will bear little resemblance to this year's ill-fated effort. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, several top White House advisers said the president is likely to advance a more modest agenda that seeks step-by-step reforms.

They also said the White House is likely to adopt a far more open process in developing that agenda, in sharp contrast to the highly secretive manner in which it hammered out the president's massive plan, which proved far too complex for the public - and Congress - to digest.