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Democrats Pitch Health Forum as Fund-Raiser


WASHINGTON — In an effort to fatten its political war chest, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is urging health industry lobbyists and executives to pay $5,000 to attend an "issues forum" featuring high-ranking Clinton Administration officials who will make crucial decisions on health care reform.

Next week's closed-door session will "discuss the current status of President Clinton's health care package, the upcoming debate as it is formulated into law by Congress and the potential effects on the nation's corporate sector," according to invitations from Sens. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D-W. Va.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.).

Forum speakers will include Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala; Karen Pollitz, her deputy assistant secretary for health legislation, and Steve Ricchetti, the chief White House liaison official for the Senate.

The solicitation does not appear to violate restrictions on fund raising or lobbying. But it is clearly targeted at organizations and individuals whose economic interests could be strongly affected by details of the President's reform package and who might fear that they would be deprived of important information if they decline the invitation.

It is relatively common for members of Congress to speak about pending legislation at events sponsored by private interest groups. But the health care forum stands out because it links a big-ticket fund-raising event with a high-profile political issue with enormous implications for the health care industry.

The Democratic Party, which now controls the White House after an absence of 12 years, sees an opportunity to attract large sums of money from businesses and groups worried about the impact of health reform and other issues.

The health care forum "is part of a regular series of meetings we have throughout the year and informational sessions we schedule in Washington and elsewhere," said Ken Klein, spokesman for the senatorial campaign committee.

There is no pressure, implied or otherwise, to participate, he said. Attendance is "a reflection of interest in topics of the day. If we have a meeting on jobs and the economy, a lot of people who are interested in jobs and the economy will attend," he said.

Invitations were sent to more than 1,000 prospective members, according to Klein.

Shalala "meets in her office with any interested group that wants to meet with her," said HHS spokesman Victor Zonana. "If somebody is paying in the hope of hearing some inside information, they are getting cheated. Anybody can hear her for free--she was on C-Span last week."

A person who wants to participate in next Thursday's session must agree to join either the campaign committee's Business Roundtable, or a more exclusive group called the Leadership Circle.

It costs $5,000 annually to join the round table, which hosts six breakfasts a year with Senate Democratic leaders and Administration officials. Responding to the latest invitation, 10 new members had signed up as of Friday to participate in the health care forum.

It costs $15,000 a year to join the Leadership Circle, but any new member who pays $5,000 to attend Thursday's health care meeting can count the donation toward the cost of the annual dues, sponsors said.

The circle offers more perks than the round table, including seminars and weekend retreats with senators and Cabinet members. And there are special events, including a March weekend at baseball spring training in Florida, the Preakness horse race in May, a white-water rafting trip in West Virginia and a trip to the 1994 Super Bowl in Atlanta--all in the company of key Democratic senators.

The invitation to Thursday's event describes the Leadership Circle as the "premier donor program for the Washington community with a schedule that includes issues conferences in Washington and informal events around the country."

The round table and the circle have a combined total of about 1,000 members, but party officials hope that events such as the health care forum will swell the membership rolls considerably.

About 200 to 250 of the current members are expected to attend the breakfast, with a smaller number staying for the full program, which runs until 2 p.m.

Klein said that previous speakers at round-table meetings included Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich and Transportation Secretary Federico Pena. A two-day session in May covering a variety of topics featured appearances by Shalala, Education Secretary Richard W. Riley, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros and U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor.

But next week's meeting is devoted exclusively to health care. Aside from Clinton's tax and budget bill, the Administration's health reform measure will be its single biggest domestic initiative.

Shalala's breakfast speech will be followed by a panel discussion directed by Sen. Rockefeller, a key Democrat on health issues. Panel members will include Sens. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Harris Wofford (D-Pa.), Pollitz from HHS, Ricchetti from the White House, Prof. Theodore R. Marmor of Yale and Dr. Mary Jane England, president of the Washington Group on Health, an advocacy group.

Sen. Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) will address the group at lunch.

The Senate campaign committee raised $25 million in 1992 from all activities, including direct mail appeals, dinners and political events, according to Klein. He did not indicate how much of the money came from members of the Business Roundtable and the Leadership Circle.

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