WASHINGTON — DESPITE growing doubts that Congress will be able to pass comprehensive health-care reform this year, the House's No. 2 Democrat, Richard Gephardt of Missouri, remains optimistic.
``What I'm getting from members is a lot of desire to do this, a willingness to be flexible and to stretch to try to do some things they aren't so excited about in order, for the common good, to get it done,'' the majority leader says.
During the latest recess congressmen heard concerns in their districts that reform could be expensive, increase government's role in a private matter, and drag down overall quality of health care. ``People naturally will, to some extent, be worried about change,'' Mr. Gephardt says. ``I think the interesting thing is, with all the worries that have been raised, rightfully, and all of the debate that has gone on, there still remains strong public support for the fundamental principles the president espoused, and that's what I felt at home.''
The prospect of health-care reform has already jolted the industry, moderating usually huge cost increases and promoting efficiency. If he could be assured these trends would continue, Gephardt says ``we might not even need to do a bill.'' But what's likely, he says, is ``if we don't do a bill, we'll lose some, if not all, of that momentum.''
One Senate committee, Labor and Human Resources, has approved a health-care bill, but it provides even more coverage than the president's package, and so cannot be passed by all of Congress. In the House, the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee is ready to vote. But the momentum that Gephardt speaks of remains in a preliminary phase. Gephardt predicts that ``if we can get a good number of Democrats'' to rally around a position, ``you're going to see Republicans being willing to do it.'' He says he works on the issue half or two-thirds of every day.
Gephardt lays out the following timetable: Get the proposal out of committee before July 4. Use the recess to do the final writing. Put the bill to a vote in both houses as early in July as possible and finish the House-Senate conference reports before August recess. If they don't finish, he says, Congress can come back after August.
What can't happen, Gephardt says, is partial reform. ``It may take you three, four, five years to get it all implemented,'' he says, ``but you've got to say that, by a certain point in time, these things are going to happen; everybody's going to be involved.''