WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan group of Senate moderates hopes to be ready today to offer the compromise proposal that many lawmakers believe is the best hope for breaking the stalemate over health care reform.
But the package to be unveiled by Sen. John H. Chafee, a Rhode Island Republican, and his band of a dozen or so "mainstream" senators will be far less generous that Mr. Chafee and his allies had hoped it would be.
"What we will have is very basic and important changes to the health care system," Mr. Chafee said. He said the proposed amendments to be offered to the Senate version of President Clinton's health care reform plan would include "real cost containment and deficit reduction."
But the normally cheerful Mr. Chafee could barely disguise his gloom over changes demanded by a majority of his group to reduce the subsidies to low-income people -- the principal means for expanding health coverage to the uninsured.
After toiling for weeks to craft a proposal that Mr. Chafee hoped would be almost as sweeping as the plan originally offered by Mr. Clinton but without the Clinton plan's most controversial elements, the senator had an air of defeat.
"If you want the mood, it's going toward scaling things down," the senator told reporters.
Although most of the moderates share Mr. Clinton's vision of providing all Americans with a basic package of health benefits, they got a sobering report from the Congressional Budget Office yesterday that persuaded them to lower expectations.
Robert Reischauer, director of the nonpartisan CBO, was unable yesterday to provide the Chafee group with the projections of cost savings that they need to convince their colleagues that their proposals won't expand the budget deficit.
"We got a reality check," said Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat who established the centrist group with Mr. Chafee months ago.
The more tight-fisted approach that the moderates will BTC recommend is not likely to be well-received by liberal Democrats such as Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. He complained last night that while the moderates worry about costs, they are unwilling to support Mr. Clinton's proposed limits on insurance premiums.
Majority Leader George J. Mitchell and the White House are eager to get the moderates' proposal so they can begin to hammer out a deal that will enable a bill to get through the Senate. Time is running out. It will be hard to keep the Senate in session for long if the House takes off for a summer recess this weekend as planned. Even so, there is no guarantee of a mainstream package today because a few key issues remain unresolved.
"Every time we think we've got a consensus, someone wants to open things up again," said Sen. James M. Jeffords, a Vermont Republican who supported the Clinton plan but is now meeting with the moderates.
Many lawmakers believe the fate of Mr. Clinton's drive to overhaul the health care system rests with this Chafee group of a dozen or so moderates.
"Isn't that frightening?" said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat who belongs to this "mainstream" coalition. "I'm afraid someone's going to pull back the curtain and find there's no wizard there."
The membership of the mainstream caucus is loose -- expanding and contracting on a daily basis. Yet it represents the center of the Senate. No major social legislation -- health reform is the most ambitious proposal to be offered in three decades -- can be enacted without the votes of at least some of these senators.
The Clinton-style bill sponsored by Mr. Mitchell, a Maine Democrat, included many ideas from the mainstream group but has failed to win support beyond a base of about 42 Democrats.
Although debate on the Mitchell bill has been under way in the Senate for nearly two weeks -- and a few minor amendments have been adopted -- the Democratic leaders are essentially marking time, waiting to see what changes will be required for the Chafee group to sign on.
In the House, where attention is now focused exclusively on resurrecting the crime bill, action on health care has been suspended until after Labor Day. The House delay is intended in part to give the Senate time to find its political balance on the highly complex issue.
Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas told a group of well-wishers yesterday that he was "just looking for a few hard votes" from Democrats "so we can kill the Mitchell bill and go home."
Mr. Dole, a prospective challenger to Mr. Clinton in the 1996 election, wants to put off action on health care until after the congressional elections, when Republicans are expected to gain seats. He and his allies warn that the Congress is moving too fast on health reform.
CLINTON ON TV
President Clinton has scheduled an East Room news conference at 1:30 p.m. today. The topic of his opening statement had not been determined, but the president was expected to take questions on the crime bill and health care reform, cornerstones of his legislative agenda that are languishing in Congress. CBS and CNN said they would carry the conference live.