BOSTON -- The polarizing politics of health care reform, featuring back-to-back addresses by President Clinton and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, will dominate the annual summer meeting of the National Governors' Association, which begins here today.
The association's leaders urged Congress yesterday not to miss the opportunity to enact national health care reform this year -- even though the governors themselves disagree over how far that reform should go.
"It would be a tragedy for the American people if Congress doesn't pass the health care bill this year," said Democratic Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, a doctor and the association's vice chairman.
Republican Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. of South Carolina, the association's chairman, agreed, saying: "We're going to miss the boat unless we are able to do some very meaningful reform."
But Governor Dean and Governor Campbell, reflecting some of the same partisan and philosophical differences that have divided Congress this election year, were clearly split on the question of whether partial reform -- something short of the "universal coverage" President Clinton wants -- is worth the effort.
"I've never seen a house built by putting the roof on first," Governor Campbell said, equating the roof with universal health care for all Americans. Advocating a slow, incremental approach popular among congressional Republicans, he said, "Build the foundation, and then you go up."
But Governor Dean, a backer of the president's plan, suggested that partial reform would eliminate any pressure for comprehensive reform later.
"If you just put the four walls up without the roof, you're not going to have much foundation to build on when the next building season comes along," he said.
Today, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, and Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., will give the governors the Democratic and Republican positions on health care reform. Then on Tuesday, Mr. Clinton and Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., the Senate minority leader, will give their views.
Although dozens of examples of how state governments are putting computerized technology to new uses are on display here, and even though discussions of trade, education and welfare reform are on the agenda, health care is the issue that seems to be on almost everyone's lips.
Even so, there is little likelihood that the governors will push the debate very far one way or another before the three-day, 86th annual summer meeting is over.
The governors' association has always prided itself for its nonpartisan approach, and health care has become a decidedly partisan issue.
The association's leaders would like to develop some sort of consensus approach, but the White House appears determined to wage an all-or-nothing fight for the president's universal coverage.
"We try to be nonpartisan," Governor Dean said, "but it is always more difficult in an election year, always more difficult when you have a difficult piece of legislation on the table like health care reform.
"We're trying to negotiate the shoals of partisanship."
Mr. Clinton, who as governor of Arkansas once headed the association, knows there is not much sense in asking the governors to formally back his plan.
That would require the support of Republican governors who, even if they agreed with him, would be unlikely to deliver such a victory to the Democratic president in an election year.
For Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who was to arrive yesterday, this is his final association meeting. He is one of at least 15 incumbent governors leaving office after this year.
While in Boston, Mr. Schaefer is expected to boast about a Maryland program he says has been successful in reducing the rate of teen pregnancies.
He also will seek funds from the Appalachian Regional Commission to help develop Canal Place, a tourist attraction being built at the Cumberland terminus of the old C&O; Canal.