Congress takes up health-care reform as Clinton aides watch

PRESIDENT Clinton's health-reform bill wasn't on the table, but his principles were when Congress finally got to work writing its own version.

And some groups that didn't like Mr. Clinton's prescription now find themselves with an even bigger worry: that Congress will do nothing at all - or just tinker with insurance rules and regulations.

For now, the House Ways and Means health subcommittee is working from a stripped-down version of the Clinton health plan that Rep. Pete Stark (D) of California cobbled together. The Congressional Budget Office gave the panel figures yesterday on just how much it would cost. Rostenkowski roiled

DAN ROSTENKOWSKI, in what may be his toughest election battle in 36 years, is fighting four opponents, undecided or apathetic voters, and fallout from a two-year investigation of his office finances.

In the end, it may be a splintered and uninspired electorate - not the personal support of political notables from Clinton on down - that will determine whether one of the most powerful men in Congress retains his House seat.

Dogged by allegations of corruption, the chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee has crowded local airwaves and mailboxes with his message: that he brings home the bacon to constituents in the form of federal money and projects.

While the chairman has said he is uncomfortable with that image, he has bowed to the wishes of his political handlers and has mounted, for him, an energetic campaign in a Chicago district where reelection has been relatively routine every two years since 1958.

The stirrings of rebellion emerged among stalwart Democrats two years ago when federal prosecutors in Washington began probing allegations that Mr. Rostenkowski or his staff exchanged $22,000 in stamps for cash at the scandal-marred House post office.

There followed a series of disclosures of suspect transactions involving rent paid on campaign offices to Rosten-kowski and his family, cars leased and bought with congressional funds, and charges of ghost payrollers on his staff.

Federal prosecutors have said only that the inquiry is continuing but will not reveal when or if Rostenkowski will be indicted.

If indicted, party rules would require that he step down from his committee chairmanship, which would essentially ruin Rostenkowski's goal of playing a critical role in Clinton's reform agenda for health care, welfare, and crime.

Rostenkowski's critics and opponents said the allegations fit with the holdover Chicago-style politics - based on patronage and perks - that he represents.

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