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Dole Urges GOP Support for Health Care Reform, NAFTA


WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who fought President Clinton's budget to the bitter end and led the filibuster that killed his economic stimulus package, is now urging Republicans to work positively with Clinton to achieve comprehensive health care reform.

Dole called health care reform the most important issue he has dealt with since coming to the Senate in 1968 and said Republicans should be "very positive about trying to figure out something . . . that's going to do the very things" that Clinton outlined in his health care reform speech Wednesday night.

While he did not endorse Clinton's particular blueprint, Dole said Congress should pass health care reform, "maybe with some fairly major changes and some compromises. If we can't do it, let's don't step back too far. Let's do as much as we can."

Interviewed Friday at a Times Washington Bureau breakfast session that was also broadcast on C-SPAN, Dole said Clinton, in tackling health care, has taken up an issue President George Bush should have focused on in last year's election.

"I agree with the President," he said, "I think we've reached a point, and certainly he gets credit for bringing it to the forefront, something (Republicans) should have done in the last election, but certain advisers of (President Bush) didn't think it was an issue."

Dole said he also shares Clinton's belief that universal health care should be a non-negotiable goal of reform.

Although long known as a tough and highly partisan opposition leader, Dole displayed a remarkably positive attitude toward Clinton on the health care issue. His accommodating demeanor contrasted sharply with the give-no-quarter, take-no-prisoners tactics he used to send the President's economic stimulus package down to humiliating defeat last spring and his fight-to-the end opposition on the budget.

For his part, Dole emphasized the importance of the issue to all Americans and the need to avoid gridlock. Another possible factor behind his new tack could be the fact that several national polls have shown a decline in the number of voters who hold a favorable opinion of him in the months since he led the attack on the stimulus package and refused to compromise on the budget. Dole is widely believed to be considering another bid for the White House.

Dole said he sees "a new atmosphere" of cooperation in Washington. Such an atmosphere, if it persists, would mark a sea change from the recent past, which many longtime leaders of both parties have described as more mean-spirited and bitterly partisan than any time in their memories.

Dole said the new atmosphere may be "only temporary," adding: "We'll have our differences on other issues." But on health care, he said, "I think there is a willingness to cooperate. I think that's got to be good news for the President."

The public, Dole said, wants the two political parties to work together on health care. What that means for Republicans is that, "if we're going to be worth our salt as a party, we've got to have ideas, we've got to have alternatives, we've got to be players and not just naysayers."

For the GOP, "there's no way to go but up" so far as the health care issue is concerned, he said, noting that one recent poll shows that the public favors Democrats over Republicans as the party best able to handle the issue by a margin of 59% to 6%.

"That caught my attention," Dole said. "How can you get any lower than six? Just by accident you ought to get to eight."

Dole also called for strong bipartisan support for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Clinton is pushing but many key Democrats are opposing. Dole said he hopes that the President, in campaigning for health care, doesn't "forget" NAFTA.

While some supporters of NAFTA have questioned Clinton's commitment, Dole credited the President with making "a very, very powerful speech" supporting the trade agreement and said he believes that the White House is fully behind the pact.

Although Clinton plans to spend the next two weeks campaigning for health care reform, a senior aide said the President is also making daily calls to members of Congress on NAFTA and is planning to "go full steam" on the issue by mid-October.

Dole acknowledged that some Republicans may be looking on Clinton's bid for both free trade and health care reform legislation with mixed emotions because victories on both issues could put the President in a powerful position to seek reelection in 1996.

In one of several digs at Ross Perot during the hourlong interview, Dole said the Texas billionaire was citing erroneous material and not being responsible in his campaign to defeat NAFTA.

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