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Odd Couple Behind Health Plan That Rivals Clinton's : Congress: Reps. Jim Cooper and Fred Grandy are in different parties. Both back a proposal without strict cost controls or employer mandates.

February 04, 1994|KAREN TUMULTY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — They would seem an unlikely pair to have emerged, for the moment at least, as the chief threat to President Clinton's health care reform plan.

One is a relatively junior--and largely unknown--Tennessee Democrat who aspires to the Senate seat once held by Vice President Al Gore. The other, though rapidly becoming an accomplished legislator, is best known to the nation as a character in a television sitcom who bumbled around the deck of a cruise ship in short pants and knee socks.

Reps. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Fred Grandy (R-Iowa) are the driving force behind a health plan that is now the only one in Congress commanding significant support on both sides of the aisle. And with the endorsement of their approach by the Business Round table and a tacit embrace by the nation's governors, Cooper and Grandy have left the backers of Clinton's plan scrambling to regain their momentum.

How long Cooper and Grandy will stay out in front remains to be seen. To a significant degree, their present support comes from groups more interested in using them to derail the Clinton plan than in writing the Cooper-Grandy blueprint for health care into law.

The political appeal of their plan--widely known as "Clinton lite"--lies largely in what it does not contain: strict cost controls or any mandate that employers provide insurance for their workers. Especially among the business interests already lobbying hard on health care, those two features of the Clinton plan are its most controversial.

But they are also its chief tools for achieving the President's twin goals of health coverage for every American and cost containment. The cost containment element in the Cooper-Grandy plan is less stringent than Clinton's and it makes no claim to assuring health care for all.

Opponents of the "lite" approach are stepping up their fire.

Cooper in particular is finding himself the object of blistering criticism within his own party for his decision to challenge the most important domestic initiative of the first Democratic President in 12 years.

"He's being used by the Republicans and all the special interest groups that want to defeat the President. I don't know that he sees it. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce health and environment subcommittee. Cooper ranks fifth from the bottom in seniority on the panel.

"He's enjoying this national attention, but it's also in his Senate campaign's self-interest to go out and do a lot of fund raising with those interest groups," Waxman said.

"I think he's had his best day," said Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.). "To some extent, Jim Cooper is a creation of the media. . . . He's just declared himself to be the alternative and the press has bought it."

Others contend that the two lawmakers and their plan--which also has a handful of Democratic and Republican sponsors in the Senate--are a rare breath of bipartisanship in an institution where most major issues are decided along party lines.

"They're real heroes," said Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield), ranking Republican on the Ways and Means health subcommittee on which Grandy sits.

Although Thomas supports a competing health proposal, he described Cooper and Grandy as "doughboys who threw themselves on the barbed wire so that others could crawl through."

Only five months ago, Grandy noted in an interview Thursday, they were just two more lawmakers peddling ideas for health care reform that no one was taking particularly seriously.

Explaining how the partnership developed, Grandy, whose career before he was elected to Congress included nine years playing Gopher on television's "Love Boat," said: "He (Cooper) wasn't getting as far as he wanted to go and I obviously wasn't getting anywhere with my bill."

So, though Grandy recalls that he and Cooper previously had "said maybe four words to each other," they and a few like-minded colleagues met to see if they could fashion a single package.

Grandy and the Republicans put aside some of their party's traditional distaste for government intrusion and agreed to a requirement that small businesses join health-purchasing cooperatives.

Cooper, 39, said he is still somewhat stunned by the attention he and the bill are getting.

"I feel like Cinderella," he said in an interview.

He said his idea is playing well in Tennessee, where he is campaigning for Gore's old Senate seat. Like the vice president, Cooper is a political blueblood in the state. His father, Prentice Cooper, was a three-term governor half a century ago, and his grandfather was Speaker of the Tennessee House.

The 45-year-old, Harvard-educated Grandy, who has worked hard to shed his television image, also has higher political aspirations. He is running for governor of Iowa.

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