WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Sen. Robert C. Byrd, one of the most powerful figures in Congress, dealt a serious setback yesterday to the passage of President Clinton's health care reform proposal this year by derailing a plan for speedy consideration of the legislation.
Despite appeals from administration officials and some colleagues, the six-term West Virginia Democrat -- a fierce protector of Senate tradition -- refused to agree to a waiver of a 1990 law bearing his name that specifically prohibits the sort of quickie Senate vote the Democratic leadership is seeking.
As a result, health care advocates believe the chances for Mr. Clinton winning approval of the mammoth reform proposal this year, already in doubt because of its complexity, are greatly diminished.
Senator Byrd "feels very strongly that an issue of this magnitude" should not be rushed under a procedure that allows only 20 hours of floor debate and requires only a simple majority of 51 votes for enactment, a spokeswoman for the senator said. "He does not believe the Senate is supposed to be efficient."
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine has been among the leading advocates of attaching the health care reform proposal to the budget reconciliation bill, a final package that will include all of Mr. Clinton's tax and spending proposals as amended by Congress.
Congressional leaders hope to pass the reconciliation bill by August. Mr. Mitchell's plan had been to package it together with the health care proposal, which a task force headed by Hillary Rodham Clinton is due to present by May 1.
Thus, the two enormous pieces of legislation would be considered together on the Senate floor with only 20 hours of debate. There would be little chance for amendment, little choice for the senators except to vote up or down and no way for a minority to kill it with a filibuster.
The "Byrd Rule" prohibits extraneous amendments from being added to the reconciliation bill. But Senate Budget Committee Chairman Jim Sasser of Tennessee was planning to ask his panel last night to recommend a waiver of the Byrd rule in the budget resolution it was due to approve.
But no senator would dare undertake such a maneuver without the consent of Mr. Byrd. A former majority leader and now president pro tem of the Senate and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he is simply not a man to be crossed.
A flurry of appeals were made, but to no avail.
"I think it's over," Senator Sasser said yesterday afternoon before his committee went into its final voting session on the budget resolution. He said he would not ask for the waiver as long as Mr. Byrd objected to it.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Mitchell withheld comment until after the committee finished its session. But she said Mr. Mitchell may explore other ways around the Senate's cumbersome procedures.
"His goal is to get health care legislation done in an efficient and prompt manner," the spokeswoman said of Mr. Mitchell.
Anything can be done quickly in Congress if there is a big enough majority in favor of it. But the health care plan is expected to be highly controversial, and the Democrats only have 57 votes in the Senate -- too few to block a filibuster without Republican support.
Even before yesterday's setback, several key House leaders had raised doubts about Congress' ability to handle the large-scale health care proposal in time to get it passed this year.