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Clinton Team Mounts Blitz to Salvage Health Reform : Insurance: Cabinet officials stream to Capitol Hill in last-ditch effort to rescue the floundering legislation.


WASHINGTON — Clinton Administration Cabinet officials blitzed Capitol Hill Friday in an urgent effort to rescue floundering health care reform legislation.

With the House Democratic leadership having chosen to delay action on health care indefinitely, the Senate--which is divided along partisan lines--plodded deliberately through a fourth day of floor debate on its version of reform.

The Administration is far short of assembling majorities in either house of Congress for its plans to provide universal health insurance coverage.

Ten Cabinet secretaries and other high-ranking members of the Clinton team huddled with the President for a morning breakfast then headed to Capitol Hill for closed-door meetings with wavering Democratic members of Congress, who are refusing to support the blueprints of the party's own leadership.

Offering an upbeat view, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala said the Cabinet was "riled up and enthusiastic."

"The test of this Administration is not whether we're going to trip every once in a while but whether we're going to get up, brush ourselves off and get out there and keep working," she said after leaving the White House.

But the mood among Democrats in Congress was much more somber. In the House, there seems scant chance of success for the proposal put together by Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). It would require all firms to provide insurance for their workers, with the companies picking up 80% of the cost.

House leaders said Friday that they will turn their attention to other issues before taking up health care.

"There's no magic date here," said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), deepening the gloomy assessment he offered Thursday when he announced that the debate scheduled for next week had been scrapped.

"We're going to take it up when it's ready to be brought up," Foley told reporters, leaving open prospects for continued delay that might kill the bill's chances in this election year.

Small business fiercely opposes the employer mandate contained in the Gephardt proposal. Hoping to disarm this opposition, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) devised a plan calling for voluntary expansion of insurance protection to bring coverage to 95% of all citizens.

If this voluntary effort does not work, a mandate would take effect in the year 2002 in states where coverage did not reach the 95% goal. The delayed mandate would require companies to contribute at least 50% of the cost of insurance, less burdensome to business than the Gephardt formula.

However, all Republicans and a significant number of dissenting Democrats seem unalterably opposed to any government requirement that employers provide health insurance, whether the mandate takes effect immediately or is held in reserve.

The Senate continued its debate Friday but members clearly had been shaken by the developments in the House--the double blow of the delay on health care and the unexpected defeat of the President's crime bill on a procedural vote.

"The Senate has entered the extremely frightened zone," said one senior Democratic aide. "What they're doing out there today now is faking it."

However, the aide said that Mitchell continues to make alterations in his bill to try to win votes, one senator at a time. Most of those changes, he said, are additions to the benefits package that have been demanded by various constituencies.

As floor debate continued Friday, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) offered the first formal amendment to the bill, a proposal requiring all health insurance policies sold after July, 1995, to include prenatal care for pregnant women and immunizations and check-ups for children.

No significant test votes seem likely in the Senate until next week.

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