It's a rare moment in the Congress these days when Republicans and Democrats get together on an issue -- and even rarer for Republicans to publicly dis their leadership.
There's all of that and more in the political flap over who will hammer out a final Patients' Bill of Rights when Congress returns after its winter recess.
The House bill was authored by two Republicans -- a doctor and a dentist --
and the dean of the Democrats in the House. It passed on Oct. 7 by a 275-151 vote. A much weaker bill, according to consumer activists and the majority of House members, passed the Senate. So the two bodies must come together to agree on a common bill. To do that, the leaders of the House and Senate must pick a group of members to sit down together and work it out.
Only problem is, House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and other
top leaders opposed the bill authored by Reps. Charlie Norwood -- the
Georgia dentist -- and Greg Ganske, the Iowa doctor. So when it came time to pick the conferees for the Patients' Bill of Rights, Hastert picked 13 Republicans, all of whom opposed the Norwood-Ganske-Dingell bill.
Minority leader Richard Gephardt's Democratic conferees all supported
the measure. "The speaker has given himself a black eye by not naming Charlie and me to the conference committee," Ganske said at a press conference on Capitol Hill Friday. "Let me suggest to Speaker Hastert that it isn't too late. What is he afraid of? That Charles and I might be able to convince some of the other 13 GOP House conferees to follow the will of the House?"
John Dingell, D-Mich., said it is unheard of for a speaker to deny a seat at the
conference table to the authors of a measure. Even President Clinton took the unusual step of meddling in the committee appointments. "We need to make certain that the results of this conference will be in the public interest; as currently constituted, this committee is weighted heavily in favor of the special interests that oppose this bill," President Clinton wrote in a letter to Hastert on Thursday.
Hastert has been pretty mum on this. He has said through a spokesman
that the speaker "followed regular order" and that he named
senior members of committees that have jurisdiction over health
matters. It was a coincidence, the speaker's office said, that these
members opposed the bill.
But the House rules seem clear on this point. They say the speaker has
to appoint no less than a majority of members who support the House
position as determined by the speaker. So it seems to give Hastert lots
of latitude. But the rule goes on to say that "the Speaker shall name members who are primarily responsible for the legislation and shall, to the fullest
extent feasible, include the principal proponents of the major
provision of the bill as it passed the House."
That, says Ganske, would argue for him and Norwood to be on the
conference committee. In a rare rebuke to their leader, Ganske and Norwood had some strong comments on the House floor Wednesday. "Our party has no credibility on HMO reform," charged Norwood. "We are both wrestlers, Mr. Speaker," Ganske said from the well of the House. "One of the great things about wrestling is that you win or lose on the mat, not by selecting the referee. If you, as coach, had a referee steal a deserved victory from one of your wrestlers, you would have lost respect for that man."
The House is due to recess in the middle of next week and members will be scattering to return to districts or take one of the many congressional trips planned during recesses. The conference committee won't meet until
next year. And even without this tiff over the conference committee
members, getting a bill that both houses would agree upon and the president
would sign is a tall order.
The major differences between the House and Senate bills are that the
House bill covers more people, particularly those who get health
insurance through their employers, and gives people a
right to sue their health plan. The Senate bill does not.
Ganske and the other proponents of the House bill know they will have
an uphill battle to bring this bill back to life. They're counting on the public to create such a stir that this will become an election issue that Republicans (in a year when the GOP majority is a slim five votes) don't dare let get the better of them.
"The American public is demanding real action on this issue," Ganske
said. He and other members at the press conference called on the 300
health organizations that support the House bill -- including the
American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association -- to
flood Congress with calls and letters.