Senate Set to Begin Health-Care Debate

WASHINGTON -- After more than a year and a half of partisan bickering, the issue of how and whether to transform the nation's health-care system has finally reached the ultimate proving ground: the floors of Congress.

The Senate was set Tuesday to launch its debate of a sweeping proposal that represents the best approximation by Majority Leader George Mitchell as to how far that chamber is willing to go toward reaching President Clinton's goal of guaranteeing health coverage for every American by a specific date.

The early days of the debate, which could stretch into weeks, are expected to be long on rhetoric, but short on real action.

Indeed, no votes at all are expected until Wednesday at the earliest, and leaders have yet to agree on when to schedule the most critical vote -- a test of whether to retain Mitchell's watered-down version of Clinton's proposal that employers be required to pay part of their workers' health benefits.

House Democrats will be watching that vote carefully, as they gauge whether to put their own careers on the line by voting for the far stronger "employer mandate" that will be contained in the bill that Majority Leader Richard Gephardt will set before them.

However, Speaker Thomas Foley denied the widely held belief -- which is espoused in private even by some members of the House Democratic leadership -- that a defeat for the mandate in the Senate automatically means the same result will occur in the House.

Pounding his desk in frustration, Foley told reporters: "I don't think there is any evidence that this is a killer amendment, which a lot of the press seems to want to believe. You know, this is the way people get their health insurance. This is the way the country provides health insurance. This is the ordinary, standard, everyday, run-of-the-mill, American, moderate, conservative, private insurance health-care plan."

Despite Foley's comments, the idea of the government requiring employers to provide benefits that they now offer voluntarily or through collective bargaining is far and away the most controversial element of the entire health debate, with business groups warning that it could cost millions of jobs.

Meanwhile, House leaders insisted they will meet their latest schedule, which calls for a final vote on the bill by the end of next week. As it now stands, all sides must submit their alternatives to the Rules Committee by Wednesday.