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Copyright 1999 The Omaha World-Herald Company  
Omaha World-Herald

November 5, 1999, Friday SUNRISE EDITION


LENGTH: 565 words

HEADLINE: Mr. Hastert Speaks


As Mel Brooks once observed, it's good to be da king. As Dennis Hastert might rephrase the comment, it's also good to be da speaker of the House.

If your fellow House members don't vote the way you like, you can fix them - and the bill you disagreed with - later. As has Hastert regarding the patients' bill of rights passed over the objections of House GOP leaders last month.

The House version of the bipartisan health maintenance organization reform bill would cover all 161 million Americans with health insurance. It would provide procedures for patients to sue HMOs if they believe they have not been properly treated. The comparable Senate bill would not allow lawsuits and would cover a smaller portion of the insured population.

The bills must now be reconciled by a House-Senate conference committee. It is this process that Hastert has managed to subvert.

Hastert appointed 13 members to the conference committee. Twelve of them had voted against the bill when it passed the House. Of the 12, some were among the bill's most outspoken opponents. Two of them had sponsored other patients' rights bills that were defeated.

On the other hand, Hastert refused to appoint the bill's major sponsors and proponents, Rep. Greg Ganske, R-Iowa, and Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the longest-serving House member, who has been a member since 1955, said he couldn't remember another time when the principal sponsors of a successful piece of legislation were denied a seat on the conference committee.

Ganske and Norwood said they were angry at the way Hastert "stacked the deck" against the House version of the bill, as were other GOP moderates. After the appointments, the bill's supporters pushed through a quick vote on a resolution instructing the House conferees to insist that the House version of HMO reform, rather than the weaker Senate bill, should prevail. The vote was 257 to 167. But the vote was non-binding and won't get in anyone's way.

Some Republicans warned the usually fair-minded Hastert that the high-handed tactic could jeopardize the GOP's narrow House majority and reinforce the public perception that GOP leaders are too close to insurance company lobbyists.

There was an interesting political undercurrent to Hastert's appointments. The speaker has been accused of being too low-key, of lacking power and authority. This is one of the first times he has asserted himself, and some observers suggested he did so in part to indicate that he is, indeed, in charge.

The political implications of his move grow more obvious by the day. The conference committee won't meet until next year, setting up an election-year confrontation between Republicans and Democrats over patients' rights. A strong bill is much favored by Americans who have been polled on the subject.

The Democrats are expected to exploit the GOP reluctance to sign on to patient protections. Some Republicans worried openly about that political threat.

The House version of the bill had its flaws, but it deserved a fair chance in the conference committee process. Instead, Hastert has done his best to load the dice against it. In the process he has badly served many of his own GOP colleagues as well as the American people who believe that the current HMO system needs improvement.

LOAD-DATE: November 5, 1999

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