WASHINGTON -- Despite President Clinton's insistence that health care reform legislation be passed this year, two key Democratic House leaders are warning that it may not be possible.
The chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and the head of its subcommittee on health expressed doubts in separate statements yesterday and Wednesday.
They said there may not be time enough for Congress to act once the presidential task force on health reform puts forward its proposal around May 1.
Their statements are significant because Ways and Means controls the fate of health reform legislation in the House.
The chairman of the health subcommittee, Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., said yesterday in an interview that "it would be hard" to enact legislation in 1993 if the normal legislative process of holding hearings is followed. The day before, committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois said through an aide that he "thinks that health care reform is basically a two-year job" and that "it would be legislatively and logistically a real long shot to do it all this year."
But Mr. Rostenkowski and Mr. Stark promised to work hard for health reform legislation this year, and neither ruled out the possibility of passage. House Speaker Thomas S. Foley refused to speculate on a timetable for the legislation, saying he could not offer "a guess on a plan that hasn't been concluded" by the administration.
Senate leaders have not expressed such doubts. And the White House responded yesterday to Mr. Rostenkowski's statement by reiterating the president's pledge. "The president is committed to health care reform this year, and we're moving forward on it," said White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers.
In his speech to Congress Feb. 17, Mr. Clinton emphasized the need to control the rapidly rising costs of medical care paid for by the government, employers and individuals: "All of our efforts to strengthen the economy will fail unless we also take this year -- not next year, not five years from now, but this year -- bold steps to reform our health care system."
Both Mr. Stark and Mr. Rostenkowski cited the difficulties in trying to move quickly on such sweeping legislation, which could drastically change the way health care is delivered and result in new taxes. Mr. Stark noted that the Ways and Means panel already has its hands full with the president's economic proposals and that Congress is scheduled to be in recess for parts of June and July and almost all of August.
A spokesman for Mr. Rostenkowski said yesterday that the congressman is concerned about public reaction to legislation that might hit some people in their pocketbooks.
"If you're going to pass major legislation that is not only going to increase benefits, but costs, you better get out and let them know what the costs are going to be," the spokesman said.
Disagreeing with the president, Mr. Stark said passage this year is not crucial. "We've waited since 1965 to expand federal health programs," he said. "A year or two [won't] make any difference."
But Maryland Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat and a member of Mr. Stark's subcommittee, said: "As the president has indicated, the economic package cannot be successful unless you get health care costs under control."