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Health Plan Turf War Smolders in Senate : Congress: Sources say Kennedy, Moynihan are battling behind the scenes for control of the measure. Similar maneuvering is seen in the House.

September 25, 1993|KAREN TUMULTY and DAVID LAUTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Two Senate barons are squaring off for what could be a bitter turf battle over health care legislation--a behind-the-scenes struggle of ego, ideology and prerogative that could help determine the final shape of the legislation.

Congressional sources said Friday that an intense rivalry has developed between Finance Committee Chairman Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and Labor Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.)--each of whom is claiming jurisdiction over the lion's share of the bill.

In the House, meanwhile, a frenzy of maneuvering is influencing everything from the scheduling of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's testimony on Capitol Hill to the actual writing of the health care bill.

Particularly in the Senate, which will be the most crucial battleground, the division of committee responsibilities will require "a cold, hard calculation" to assure the bill's survival, said one congressional committee aide who, like most others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity.

While the leaders of the two houses ultimately must work out the problems among their committee chairmen, the White House will have some leverage, based on the way it structures the bill.

The Administration's inclination, as perceived by some close to the struggle, is to write the bill in a form that would put as much of it as possible in the jurisdiction of Kennedy's committee. The Massachusetts senator has embraced the Administration bill without apparent reservation, while Moynihan has publicly questioned its financing scheme, dismissing at least part of it as "fantasy."

In addition, getting the bill through Moynihan's panel would probably be more difficult. The Finance Committee's Democratic majority is so slim that even one defection could doom any legislation on a party-line vote. And its membership includes notoriously independent Democrats, including Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), one of the most outspoken opponents of Clinton's economic plan.

On the other hand, Moynihan's committee is more likely to find the partisan middle ground that will assure the Republican support needed to win passage of the health care plan by the entire Senate. Among its Republican members are Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), author of a GOP alternative plan that could offer the best hope of compromise.

"We've got a pretty strong bipartisan record in the Senate Finance Committee (for) working together on health care. I don't think we've ever gotten locked up on the health care issue on a partisan basis," Dole said.

Noting there has been "a little tension between whether it's going to be Labor Committee or Finance Committee, whether it's going to be Kennedy or Moynihan," Dole added: "I hope we have our appropriate jurisdiction preserved in the Finance Committee."

Some Democrats say they worry that the bill could be a harder sell to the nation if it is closely associated with Kennedy, who has often been caricatured as an old-fashioned, free-spending liberal.

"It would be a colossal mistake for the 'new Democrat' President to have his one major piece of social legislation be Teddy Kennedy's legislation," one said. "It would just be a Republican dream come true, no matter what the quality of the legislation was."

Yet Kennedy, who introduced his first national health insurance bill in 1970, has championed the health care reform cause since long before it was politically fashionable. No one expects him to cede ground on the issue now that it has its first real chance of seeing significant legislative action.

"Kennedy has been waiting for this for an incredibly long time," a Democratic aide explained. "You can understand why there would be a proprietary air about it, in terms of who gets to be Mr. Health. This is the big one for everybody."

Publicly, the two chairmen play down their rivalry. "I like Pat Moynihan. I've worked closely with him over a long period of time. I think we'll have a good relationship," Kennedy told reporters earlier this week.

Lawrence O'Brien, the Finance Committee's chief of staff, said that under Senate rules, the bill must be referred to Moynihan's panel, but he added that he expects the panel to "very agreeably work with other committees to see if there are items that come under their jurisdiction."

The same drama is being played out in the House, where at least three committees--Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Education and Labor--have significant jurisdiction.

According to a source in the House Democratic leadership, initial plans to have Hillary Clinton, head of the Administration's health care task force, open a series of congressional hearings in the Senate had to be hurriedly scrapped when Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) insisted that his panel be first and "got sort of heated about it."

Administration officials say that, in large part because of the jurisdictional squabbles, the First Lady will probably have to testify five times next week.

She is tentatively scheduled to testify twice on Tuesday, before the House Ways and Means and the House Energy and Commerce committees; twice on Wednesday, before the House and Senate Labor committees, and once Thursday, in front of the Senate Finance panel.

Each of the committees regarded an appearance by the First Lady as an important initial signal of control over the health care turf, officials said, and none were willing to combine their hearings.

For White House aides, who had hoped she could testify once--or at most once on each side of the Capitol--the exasperating round of congressional turf battles came as an inauspicious omen. The squabbling "is little stuff now, but it's a bad sign," one official said.

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