- The Washington Times - Monday, July 2, 2001

The Republican-controlled House is President Bush's last line of defense against the Senate's Kennedy-McCain-Edwards patients' bill of rights, which he says would spark a wave of lawsuits and price millions of Americans out of their health insurance protection.
Facing the Democrats' strongest legislative drive to further regulate the health care industry since the Clinton health care plan went down in flames in 1993, the administration tried a variety of tactics last week to change the Senate bill though with little substantive effect. Mr. Bush has threatened to veto the bill.
But the president would like to avoid killing a bill that White House polls show is popular. His new strategy is to pass an alternative bill in the House that contains the same health care guarantees as the Kennedy-McCain-Edwards bill but would place stricter limits on lawsuits against employers, insurers and health maintenance organizations (HMOs). Passage of that House bill would give the administration more negotiating power in a House-Senate conference to refashion a compromise that Mr. Bush can accept.
"We're losing," a dejected lobbyist with the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) said by midweek as, one by one, Republican efforts to provide blanket protection for small-business employers from a wave of lawsuits and other changes were voted down.
The Senate did pass an amendment by Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, to limit lawsuits against employers, but the limits would apply only if businesses took extraordinary steps to separate themselves from the health care benefits their plans allowed. That was far short of the broader protection small businesses wanted.
The Senate bill still would give millions of Americans the right to go into state court and sue their HMOs, other insurers and employers who assume the responsibility for their health plans. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill would raise health care costs by 4.2 percent.
The bill was the first political test of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's new leadership. He staked his reputation on passing Kennedy-McCain-Edwards and managed to keep his troops in line on the critical votes.
Some changes have been made to the bill, but the business community and the administration still consider it unacceptable.
"The Snowe amendment was a good start, but a small business owner could still be dragged into court, premiums are going to increase and those increases are going to have to be passed on to employees or the last resort will be to drop coverage and increase the uninsured," said Mary Ellen Bahret, the NFIB's Senate lobbyist.
Soon after the Senate debate began two weeks ago, when the White House knew that it did not have the votes to kill its central liability provisions, the administration asked House Republican leaders to prepare a new bill that the president could sign.
The bill that Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican, introduced last week has most of the health care access guarantees in the Kennedy-McCain-Edwards bill, but it would allow only a limited right to sue in state courts after other independent reviews have been exhausted.
Mr. Bush has been meeting with House members over the past week to lobby for the bill, and House leaders say they will mount a full-court press on getting it passed after the July 4 recess.
"The leadership is working very aggressively for the Thomas bill. We believe that is our line in the sand," said a House Republican leadership official. "We've pretty much told our members that when we get back we're going to bring this up very quickly."
Pursuing the same strategy it used in the budget and tax-cut battles, the White House is hoping that if the Republicans can pass their version in the House, they will be in a stronger position to negotiate a compromise that Mr. Bush can sign when they go into conference with the Senate to reconcile differences between the two bills.

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