- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Sen. John McCain shifted gears yesterday and backed away from a Democratic-scripted attack he leveled Friday against President Bush's threat to veto health care reform legislation now being considered by the Senate.

The Arizona Republican, chastened by Republican lawmakers who privately criticized his total embrace of the patients' bill of rights endorsed by Democrats, is now coordinating proposed changes not wanted by his co-sponsors, lawmakers said.

Mr. McCain is acting as "an honest broker" to make the bill — written by Democratic Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina — more palatable to Republicans and the White House, said Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Senate Republican Conference chairman.

"In our discussions today, he was open to make changes, more so than Ted Kennedy," Mr. Santorum said.

Mr. McCain told reporters off the Senate floor that he supports a change proposed by Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, to allow employers to avoid lawsuits by shifting liability to health insurers designated as medical decision-makers.

Mr. Bush personally telephoned Mrs. Snowe and Sens. Mike DeWine, Ohio Republican, and Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat, to express support for their efforts to devise a compromise on employer liability and "a broad consensus on the other issues as well," the Maine Republican told reporters.

Mr. McCain said he was working with senators on draft language to limit the scope of lawsuit opportunities simultaneously in state and federal courts.

"Now he's read the substance of the bill that Ted Kennedy and John Edwards handed him" and realized it had serious flaws, said Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho, chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee.

"He realized it was written by a team of trial lawyers" whose primary aim was lawsuit opportunities and millions of dollars in settlements from employers who sponsor health insurance coverage for their workers, Mr. Craig told reporters in the Senate Press Gallery.

While talking to reporters, Mr. McCain angrily denounced The Washington Times for a story Saturday that disclosed his use of verbatim talking points issued by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, to attack Mr. Bush in a Senate speech and press release Friday.

Mr. Bush said he would veto the bill in its current form because it would increase health care costs by permitting jury awards up to $5 million in federal court and unlimited punitive damages under state law, while exposing employers to unlimited lawsuits.

"If you want to fabricate something, go ahead," Mr. McCain said when asked about his attack on the president in concert with Democrats. He said he could not explain the identical wording of the Democratic talking points, his own press release, and his Senate speech criticizing Mr. Bush.

"I have not coordinated with [Democrats] on anything," Mr. McCain said.

The Arizona Republican got flustered when shown a copy of his own press release and Mr. Daschle's talking points issued the day before, which were identical in wording and sequence. "I had nothing to do with that," Mr. McCain said. "I have no clue who did it. I didn't. Someone else may have."

Privately, Republican senators said Mr. McCain had "jumped onto" the patients' rights issue to bolster his continuing presidential aspirations, but seemed unaware last week of the details of the Kennedy-Edwards bill.

"It's obvious in meetings he doesn't know the substance," said one senator who asked not to be identified. "The bill was written by lawyers, for lawyers, to be interpreted by lawyers," said a senior Republican aide who attended the meetings. "The ramifications of the language have so much to do with precedents, not language."

All last week and again yesterday, Republicans denounced the bill's provisions that would permit practically unlimited lawsuits by patients claiming injury from denial of medical services.

The Senate voted 61-39 to reject an effort by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, to send the bill back to committee for drafting before further Senate action.

Senators also voted 57-43 to reject an amendment by Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican, to add language from a Texas statute, widely praised by Democrats, to give employers full immunity from health care lawsuits by their workers.

Mr. DeWine said Republican opponents were concerned the amendment would preclude employees whose companies run self-financed health care plans from "having their day in court" when arbitration fails.

Also yesterday, House Republicans and Democrats introduced competing patients' rights bills that mirror party differences in the Senate on employer liability.

A bill drafted by Republican committee leaders at the direction of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, would direct patients to exhaust an independent medical review process before going to court and would cap noneconomic "pain and suffering" damages in federal court at $500,000.

"This is an extraordinary compromise," said Rep. Billy Tauzin, Louisiana Republican and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "This will be signed by the president and … can be passed by the House, and that makes it the most valuable bill, I think, on the Hill."

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