WASHINGTON -- The health care debate took a sharp detour off the high road yesterday, when Rep. Pete Stark told a Republican member of his health subcommittee that she learned what she knows about the subject "through pillow talk" with her husband, a doctor.
Mr. Stark, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Ways and Means health subcommittee, later apologized to Rep. Nancy Johnson, a Connecticut Republican, saying that he "had not intended to question her expertise in any area."
Ms. Johnson, who is married to a gynecologist, is the only woman on the panel.
His comments came during the second day of voting by the panel, which endorsed giving the government new powers to control prescription drug costs and set aside a sharply higher cigarette tax that President Clinton has proposed.
The health subcommittee is the first congressional panel to consider sweeping health legislation since the president put it at the top of the national agenda. It is considering a bill, written by Mr. Stark, that reaches the Clinton goal of universal coverage by expanding the Medicare program.
Ms. Johnson is a leading voice among Republicans on health care, an issue on which she has developed deep knowledge.
During the week the subcommittee has been drafting a health care bill, Ms. Johnson's combative tone and conservative ideological bent have been visibly irritating the liberal chairman.
The tension erupted when Rep. Bill Thomas, a California Republican, attempted to delete Mr. Stark's proposals to give the government new powers over prescription drug prices and greater say in their uses.
Republicans said the proposal would constrain physicians from trying new uses for existing drugs and would dampen investment and research on new ones.
Mr. Stark answered: "The [chairman] does not intend, under any circumstances, to let the greedy drug manufacturers decide how they're going to waste the taxpayers' money."
After Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington, a psychiatrist, defended the cost controls, Ms. Johnson conceded that he was the only member of the panel to know first-hand the legitimate needs of physicians, but she noted pointedly that he was "in a specialty that uses a rather narrow range of drugs."
Mr. Stark then told Ms. Johnson, using the third-person form of address that is standard in congressional proceedings: "The gentlelady got her medical degree through pillow talk, and the gentleman from Washington got his medical degree by going to school."
Ms. Johnson, who has been in the House for more than a decade, replied, "I get my knowledge of the medical system from endless hours as a representative in this Congress, in hospitals and physicians' offices talking with patients."
She has been on the Ways and Means panel since 1989, and she was the first GOP woman to be named to that highly sought panel.