Republican leaders, meeting Saturday in Los Angeles to gear up for the 1994 campaign, demonstrated a growing conviction that the country and their party will be better off if no national health care reform legislation is approved this year.
Abandoning long-held assumptions about the political cost of opposing health reform legislation, an increasing number of Republican leaders say they believe their candidates could overcome being branded legislative "gridlockers" by arguing that they supported other versions of health reform and that President Clinton's proposed solution was worse than the problem.
The complexities of health care have created sharp divisions within both parties over the issue. For example, some Democrats are opposed to a national health plan that would include abortion as a covered benefit while others insist upon such coverage.
For this reason, White House strategists have always assumed that Clinton would need bipartisan backing to win enactment of a comprehensive reform package that he has made the centerpiece of his domestic agenda. The shift in Republican thinking will make it harder than ever for the President to accomplish this goal.
At the Republican National Committee's summer meeting Saturday, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, a 1996 presidential hopeful, won resounding applause from committee members when he declared: "There is absolutely no reason why we have to have a (health) package passed by November."
At the same time, the committee members from 13 states in the GOP's Southern region, stretching from Florida to Texas, unanimously adopted a resolution calling for a delay in health care legislation now pending in Congress until after the November elections.
Until recently, GOP leaders believed that a majority of Americans were demanding some form of health care reform and would turn against public officials who stood in its way. Recent national polls, however, have found dwindling support for Clinton's plan.
Republicans say they are reacting not only to polling data but to what they view as Clinton's intransigence. They complain that Clinton has refused to agree to significant compromises on such issues as requiring all employers to pay for their workers' coverage, even though he seems unable to win over enough members of his own party in Congress to pass the sort of legislation he favors.
The GOP officials do say, however, that their emerging view could be altered if circumstances change on Capitol Hill, where debate on health care is entering its climactic stage.
"If they come up with something I can live with, I would support it, " said California state party Chairman Tirso del Junco, a surgeon. "But I do not believe that the plans presently on the table would be approved by the American people. To rush this through is bad news."
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas said the Democrats "don't have a plan, they're just driving around the country," a reference to the half-dozen White House-backed bus caravans traveling to Washington from various parts of the nation to boost public support for the President's plan.
"The best thing to happen would be for a good bill to pass," Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour said in an interview Saturday. "But events of the last few months have served to confirm the belief that it's right to take the position that no bill is better than a bad bill."
Cheney, at a news conference following his talk, said that based on his travels around the country campaigning for GOP candidates, he has concluded that the "vast majority of the American people are going to be suspicious of something that's passed in the dark of night and rushed out to the floor in a big cardboard box that nobody has had the chance to analyze or examine."
Virginia GOP Chairman Patrick McSweeney, one of the Southern leaders who voted for the resolution urging postponement of congressional action, said the proposal was intended to influence GOP lawmakers, particularly Dole, who is the author of the principal GOP approach to health care.
In his remarks, Dole touted his own reform proposal, which offers fewer benefits at lower cost than Democratic-backed alternatives. But he also sounded willing to consider waiting until next year.
"We don't have to do it all this year," he said in the closing address to committee members. "We don't have to do any of it this year. You know, Congress meets every year.
"I see a lot of bright spots to (acting) next year," he added, referring to Republican expectations of major gains in the November elections that would give the party more clout in the next Congress.
Florida GOP Chairman Tom Slade made the same point in explaining his support for delaying action. "There is going to be a different Congress in 1995," he contended. "And it will be a Congress more reflective of the wishes of the American people."