WASHINGTON -- Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole escalated the partisan warfare over health care reform BTC yesterday, warning President Clinton to tone down his attacks on the GOP or forget about Republican help on ratifying a world trade agreement this year.
The Republican complained that the White House had asked for a "political timeout" on the trade agreement, while Mr. Clinton and leaders of the Democratic National Committee were attacking his less expansive health care proposal.
"Tell the president he can't expect Republican help on the trade agreement while he's out beating us up on health care like he is today in Pennsylvania," the Senate minority leader said in a telephone conversation yesterday with Leon E. Panetta, the White House chief of staff.
The Republican leader was referring specifically to a speech Mr. Clinton made yesterday in Greensburg, Pa., where the president told an audience of about 10,000:
"I want to challenge the people in Congress, especially the members of the other party, not to pass a program that claims to do something it doesn't do.
"Let's don't burn the middle class one more time," Mr. Clinton implored.
"Let's help the middle class, let's help small business, let's provide health care for all Americans."
Mr. Clinton did not mention Mr. Dole by name.
But the purpose of his remarks and the Democratic National Committee's television advertisements is to persuade the public reject Republican efforts to block the president's sweeping proposal to reform the health care system.
Democratic leaders in the House and Senate are trying to meld the health care proposals of four separate committees into a single plan that can pass their respective chambers.
Unlike the president's plan, Mr. Dole's proposal would not guarantee health insurance for all Americans.
The senator from Kansas favors insurance-market reforms to increase access to health care for the sick and those who change jobs. Lawmakers have proposed many alternatives in between the two proposals.
Health care reform is the most complex and far-reaching legislation Congress has undertaken for at least 30 years -- since the creation of the Medicare and Medicaid health programs for the elderly and poor.
The political stakes are unusually high because the Democrats are expected to lose several Senate seats in the fall elections.
Mr. Dole, a potential challenger to Mr. Clinton in 1996, thus has a great deal of incentive to deny the president a triumphant victory on health care reform this year.
"Folks, all over America, the airwaves are full of a lot of rhetoric," Mr. Clinton told the audience in Pennsylvania.
"This has gotten to be about politics.
Mr. Dole's threat to withhold Republican support for ratification of an agreement under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) threatens to end bipartisan cooperation on trade that has helped the president in the past.
Republicans in the House and Senate played a vital role last year in helping Mr. Clinton win congressional approval for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada.
4 More Republicans than Democrats voted for NAFTA.
The GATT agreement, for which congressional leaders hope to win approval before Congress adjourns this fall, is not expected to be nearly as controversial as NAFTA.
GOP support needed
But Republican help will surely be needed to offset expected opposition from Democrats, who tend to resist trade agreements that may threaten jobs.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said Mr. Dole puzzled him Thursday at a meeting of committee leaders with Treasury Secretary Lloyd M. Bentsen.
It was during that meeting that Mr. Dole suddenly presented a long list of objections to the GATT agreement.
When he heard of Mr. Dole's warning to the president yesterday, Mr. Moynihan said, "Now I understand what that was all about."
By bringing GATT into the mix, the Republican leader may also be signaling that he doesn't believe he can defeat Mr. Clinton on health care alone.
The senator has 39 co-sponsors for his health proposal, but that's not enough to stall a Clinton-style bill with a filibuster.
"I thought Bob Dole was a believer in GATT," said Sen. Harris Wofford, a Pennsylvania Democrat for whom Mr. Clinton was campaigning yesterday.
"If he's a believer, why is he using it as a club?"
Mr. Wofford said he wasn't too worried about the GATT threat, though.
"Health care reform is by far the most important issue in this country," said the senator, whose successful use of the issue led to his upset election victory in 1991 and carried it into national prominence.