THE job of turning out a health-care law this year - as President Clinton has proposed it - is the largest legislative project ever undertaken by any current member of Congress.
The bill will have many shepherds prodding it through the parliamentary canyons of Capitol Hill in coming months. But in House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois, Mr. Clinton has a bill-carrying fullback - a broad-backed, hardheaded producer who makes things happen even if the making is not always pretty.
But in recent months, Mr. Rostenkowski's troubles have been growing, raising uncomfortable questions over whether he will be able to see the health-care bill through. His troubles are both legal - his finances have been under investigation by a federal grand jury for two years - and political. He faces a tough primary election March 15.
If he is either forced from his chairmanship or becomes a lame duck, then Clinton faces a setback for his health-care bill in the House.
``Obviously, it would give us a lot of trouble,'' says a White House aide, who wished not to be quoted by name.
``It makes what was a tough job a lot tougher,'' says Charles Cook, a political analyst and publisher of the Cook Report newsletter.
``If he does leave, it's a complication,'' says Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, the minority whip and no supporter of the Clinton health plan. ``Rosty's very important, very capable.''
Mr. Gingrich adds, however, that Rostenkowski is not indispensable to the administration. Other congressional leaders, such as House majority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, he says, ``can carry the bill.''
``It would be a setback. It would not be the end of the legislation,'' says Martin Corry, director of federal relations for the American Association of Retired Persons.
Too much is at stake in health-care reform for Congress to let it drop, he says, yet a new Ways and Means chairman would have a lot of ground to make up. ``You can't just walk in cold and in three weeks or six weeks pull together a bill like that,'' Mr. Corry says.
The benefit of having Rostenkowski running the lead committee on health care lies both in his gift as a political operator and his accumulated clout on the Hill.
He is adept at doing deals and breaking the deadlock on tough votes with horse trades, yet he keeps his eye on the outcome.
``He keeps the focus. He knows where he wants to end up,'' says Robert McIntyre, director of Citizens for Tax Justice and someone who has watched Rostenkowski's tax-writing committee work closely over the years.
``He knows how to make things happen, which he often gets criticized for,'' Mr. McIntyre says. For example, in steering through tax reform in 1986, Rostenkowski closed $500 billion worth of loopholes over five years and gave out $10 billion worth of ``transition rules'' that often favored industries or districts. ``You do small things to appease people to get something bigger done,'' he says.
He has built up a considerable stockpile of trust over the years in both parties that allows for collecting and handing out chits.
When a member makes a difficult vote, Corry says, that member knows that Rostenkowski will bargain hard in the conference committee so that the vote was not in vain. In other words, if a politician takes a risk to get a bill through committee, Rostenkowski will throw a lot of muscle and street smarts into making sure it wins.
Rostenkowski's successor on Ways and Means is Sam Gibbons (D) of Florida. ``Gibbons just doesn't have the same ability to pull things together,'' the White House official notes.
Rostenkowski has drawn five challengers in his primary race. He leads the field by a modest plurality in recent polls, but a third of the voters are undecided, which does not bode well for an 18-term incumbent under a cloud of scandal.
The federal investigation of Rostenkowski's financial practices appears to be growing wider by the month, judging by reported subpoenas. It started with allegations that he used the House post office to trade cash for stamps. The probe has spread to possible ghost employees on his congressional payroll and a ghost office rented in a building owned by himself and his sister. Lately, the grand jury has subpoenaed his travel records as well.