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Kennedy's New Look : He Now Seeks Reform Without Big Spending

January 26, 1987|ROBERT A. ROSENBLATT and JOHN BALZAR | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The crowd jammed the hearing room and the television cameras focused on the senator who was talking about "the challenge of building this country, a job that is never done."

The Boston accent and the rhetoric were familiar, as were the stories of the witnesses who came forward to tell of poverty and woe on the underside of America. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, graying and heavy in middle age, was once again sounding the call of social activism.

The Democrats' recapture of the Senate majority in November has given Kennedy the chance to run a powerful committee for the first time in six years, and he picked the Labor and Human Resources Committee as the pulpit for his liberal gospel.

Message Has Changed

But while the social causes and emotionally charged atmosphere of the recent Senate hearing were vintage Kennedy, the message has changed.

Faced with a vigorous and self-confident conservatism and a Republican Administration led by a massively popular President, Kennedy, once the leading advocate of Big Government solutions to people's problems, now says he wants reform without massive new spending and more bureaucracies.

"I recognize the restrictions of the present budget, and I welcome the challenge to do more within those constraints . . . throwing dollars doesn't solve the problem," he says repeatedly.

The theme reflects a vaunted liberal, back in power, adapting to the new austerity.

'New Approaches'

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the conservative who ran the committee for the last six years under the Republican majority, gleefully quoted a recent Kennedy comment that "new approaches can work without increasing spending."

"Ted, when I read that quote, I thought you might have accidentally been quoting one of my speeches," said Hatch, smiling at the new chairman.

Kennedy's response to the conflict between social needs and federal deficits is a package of bills aimed at nudging the 100th Congress into a new cycle of legislative activism without a high government price tag.

For example, his self-described "new agenda for social progress in America" highlights an increase in the minimum wage and the required establishment of health insurance for all American workers. Both would involve higher costs, but for business rather than government.

Curing Society's Ills

In contrast, Kennedy's 1979 bill proposing comprehensive national health insurance for all Americans was projected to have cost an estimated $40 billion, $28.6 billion of which would have been borne by the federal government had the bill passed.

In his revised approach to curing society's ills, Kennedy may be catching a new trend, according to David Doak, a Democratic political consultant. "The country is more receptive, we've been seeing that in poll data for some time. What's happening is that Democrats are now willing to stick their heads out of the foxholes for the first time in years."

"This is the post-Reagan era. It began just a few days ago," one eager adviser said soon after Congress convened.

Kennedy's return to committee leadership has produced a type and tone of Senate hearing rarely seen during the Republican years.

At the recent session, a 68-year-old woman testified she could not afford to get false teeth or go to a hospital for a checkup since her colon cancer operation three years ago. A young couple told of a collection agency's threatening to have their home sold to satisfy a $360,000 bill for five months' hospital treatment for their son, born weighing less than 1 1/2 pounds. A Catholic bishop from Brooklyn called for "policies that empower the poor."

However, even with Kennedy back in committee power and the Democrats now dominant in Congress, there is no assurance that his social initiatives will soon bear fruit.

Competing for Support

The Reagan White House, pushing for increased defense spending and cuts in domestic programs, will pit its power against his plans. And, with Kennedy insisting he will not run for President, his programs will compete for support with the ideas advanced by a long list of Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls.

Nevertheless, Kennedy beams with optimism.

He and his backers say they intend to press the minimum wage debate not in Great Society terms but in the contemporary language of the Reagan era, insisting that jobs should pay enough to give workers enough buying power to keep the economy healthy.

A worker can be employed year-round at the minimum wage of $3.35 an hour and still fall far below the federal poverty standard of $10,000 a year for a family of four, according to Kennedy. He will push for an increase, possibly to $4.50 an hour.

Health Insurance Plan

Kennedy pitches his health insurance program as a similar protection for vulnerable workers. Today, such insurance is an optional benefit for workers. An estimated 37 million Americans do not have health insurance coverage. Under the Kennedy plan, all employers would be required to provide medical insurance for full-time workers.

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