Jim Cooper: at the Heart of a Compromise

Failure of Clinton team to deflect business opposition builds momentum for scaled-down health-care proposal

HE is an ambitious baby-boom politician from a small southern town who calls himself a New Democrat. He is a former Rhodes scholar with an Ivy League law degree who revels in complex policy details. He is proposing to overhaul the nation's health-care system.

And he is not Bill Clinton.

Rep. Jim Cooper (D) of Tennessee catapulted to prominence over the course of the past week largely at President Clinton's expense. For months, Mr. Cooper's plan for the health-care system has been touted by expert opinion as a likely center of compromise, along with the Senate plan of Sen. John Chafee (R) of Rhode Island. Both are more conservative, scaled-down plans than Mr. Clinton's, with a heavier reliance on market competition. Cooper calls his plan ``Clinton Lite.''

``Our bill promises less than the administration's bill, but we are confident that we can deliver on those promises,'' Cooper told a House committee last week.

In a strategic move that failed last week, the White House lobbied hard to persuade the Business Roundtable, a group of the chief executives of 200 large corporations, to delay taking a position on the Clinton health plan.

The executives not only took a position, they endorsed Cooper's rival plan. This, followed by the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers both announcing opposition to the Clinton plan within days, tripped the momentum White House aides hoped for.

The Clinton health plan had lost some steam since Congress went out of session in late November. Some public concerns were registering about its cost, and in Washington questions were gelling over its bureaucracy and the degree to which the current system was really in crisis.

But the success of Clinton's State of the Union message, in which he made a direct assault on the no-crisis argument, had begun visibly to drive Republicans away from that line of attack.

By Wednesday morning, a senior White House aide was painting a picture of growing acceptance that the health-care system is in crisis, growing support for Clinton based on an improving economy, and growing areas of common ground across party lines on education and crime.

``All of that strengthens the momentum,'' the adviser said.

But the momentum had dissipated by the afternoon. The attention the White House gave the Business Roundtable redounded to the benefit of the Cooper plan.

Governors' support

The way had been prepared in the previous days, as the National Governors Association met in Washington and endorsed some principles of health-care reform that were more similar to Cooper's plan than Clinton's.

Few expect that a successful effort to overhaul the health-care system this year will look exactly like any of the proposals now before Congress. The jockeying now is over which bill will become the starting point for the shaping of the legislation.

The Cooper bill is the most bipartisan proposal in the arena. Among its 57 cosponsors in the House are 26 Republicans and 31 Democrats. Cooper himself is a conservative Democrat, a leader in the Conservative Democratic Forum that was once the home of the boll weevil Democrats that supported Ronald Reagan's tax cuts in 1981. Cooper entered Congress is 1982.

The son of a former Tennessee governor who once ran against Vice President Al Gore Jr.'s father, Cooper is expected to run for the Senate seat this year that Mr. Gore vacated when he went to the White House.

He describes the essential difference between his plan and Clinton's as one concerning the role of government. Government mandates and controls play a smaller role in the Cooper plan.

On the other hand, he says his bill does not offer universal, comprehensive coverage - which is the single strongest selling point of the Clinton plan. In fact, according to political scientist Robert Blendon of the Harvard University School of Public Health, universal coverage is the only feature of the health-care debate so far that is widely understood and favored by the public.

The Cooper plan, unlike Clinton's, would not require anyone to buy insurance, and it would not require employers to pay for it. But it would subsidize insurance for families with incomes less than double the poverty level.

Costs of care

That cost would be retrieved by limiting corporate tax deductions for health benefits above a standard level. Currently, businesses can deduct the entire cost of health benefits, no matter how generous, from their taxable incomes. The Clinton plan retains the complete tax deductibility of the current system, partly in a bid for the kind of business support denied last week.

Both plans are based on setting up health alliances as large purchasing pools to give everyone the buying leverage that only large corporations have now. But the Clinton plan, unlike Cooper's, backstops the whole system with national price controls on insurance premiums.

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