No Health-Care Reform, But Plenty of Finger Pointing

FOR a flickering moment it looked as though the Haiti accord would free Congress for a last-ditch spurt on health-care reform. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine said a mainstream bipartisan coalition, plugging away in private, had resolved 90 percent of the issues on a bill that would cover 94 percent of Americans by the year 2000. Senator Mitchell, who passed up a seat on the Supreme Court to place this capstone on his Senate career, was ready to fight the battle even at this late date.

But it was not to be. A steady drumbeat of attacks on the effort came from conservatives saying it was too much too late and from liberals saying it was too little too late. Senate Republican leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas and House leader Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia threatened to hold the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade treaty hostage. The signal that it was all over came from President Clinton Tuesday when, after a meeting with congressional leaders, he did not list health-care reform as a priority for the remainder of the session.

``Time to give health reform a decent burial and provide for its rebirth,'' said Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan in a letter to the president.

But rebirth is unsure and the burial is not likely to be decent. For now we are down to the ancient partisan question of ``Who Killed Cock Robin'' - who gets the blame for the failure of the massive effort?

``I don't believe we should bring up a bill if it faces certain defeat,'' Mitchell says, trying to make clear that its opponents killed it. The House cannot act on a health bill in the face of ``virtually total partisan opposition,'' says House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington.

Messrs. Dole and Gingrich say there was no way to work on an 1,100-page bill in the waning days of this session.

Between now and November there will be a lot more partisan efforts to lay blame. For before the public became confused about competing plans, people did express a wish for a more rational system of health care that would ease the insecurity of millions of Americans. And now that it's all over, there will be a lot of explaining to do about why government seems unable to respond to the popular will.

But then explaining whose fault it was is what politicians do best. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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