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Copyright 1999 Gannett Company, Inc.  

November 4, 1999, Thursday, FINAL EDITION


LENGTH: 965 words

HEADLINE: Hastert packs panel with opponents of HMO bill Dems, some Republicans decry action

BYLINE: William M. Welch


WASHINGTON -- Last month, nearly one-third of House Republicans
defied party leaders and joined Democrats to help approve a broad
managed-care reform bill.

On Wednesday, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., packed a critical
House-Senate negotiating committee with Republicans who opposed
the legislation. Hastert's bold display of power triggered howls
of protest from Democrats as well as some of his fellow Republicans.

"Our party has no credibility on HMO reform," said Rep. Charles
Norwood, R-Ga., a dentist who is the main author of the House
bill but was excluded from the negotiating committee. "All the
clever commercials that money can buy will not change that fact."

Only one of 13 Republicans who Hastert named to the conference
committee voted for the House-passed bill. Hastert refused pleas
by Norwood and physician Rep. Greg Ganske of Iowa, the two GOP
members who wrote the bill, to include them on the negotiating

That panel is supposed to work out a final version with the Senate,
which passed a far narrower set of patient protections four months
ago. The Senate version would apply to100 million fewer Americans
and keep in place a federal ban on suing HMOs for damages in most

Hastert's spokesman, John Feehery, defended the appointments.
He said they included some relevant subcommittee chairmen and
others Hastert felt belonged on the panel.

"He's speaker of the House, and he has a right to name conferees
as he sees fit," Feehery said.

The House responded to Hastert's move by approving, 257-167, a
Democratic-sponsored resolution restating support for the key
patient protections it approved on Oct. 7, including the right
to sue HMOs. Fifty-two Republicans voted with Democrats to reinforce
the House position. That's 16 fewer than voted for the bill a
month ago.

Wednesday's vote instructed the negotiators appointed by Hastert
to stand by the House-passed bill, but it has no binding legal

Republican advocates of managed-care reform denounced Hastert's
move in a rare public display of internal GOP dissent before the
full House. Several Republicans warned Hastert that his tactic
could jeopardize their fragile House majority, undermine the House's
position and reinforce public perceptions that GOP leaders are
tied to insurance company lobbyists.

Ganske, a plastic surgeon, demanded a spot on the conference committee
in a letter to Hastert, which he read to the full House: "Denny,
your leadership with a small majority rests on respect. If you
deny Charlie (Norwood) and me spots as conferees, you will be
endangering the respect" of Republicans.

Hastert did not respond directly. Norwood said Hastert gave him
no answer when the two met.

Democrats who sought tough patient protections said they were
not surprised that Hastert and other GOP leaders would use their
power to block the bill's progress. However, many said they were
bewildered by the speaker's utter lack of subtlety, and they regarded
it as unnecessary overreaching.

Hastert, they said, easily could have achieved the goal of undermining
the House bill in negotiations with the Senate while appointing
a more balanced mix of supporters and opponents. Denying a spot
to the chief GOP sponsors only drew more attention to the issue
and angered moderates who viewed it as a personal affront to Norwood
and Ganske.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the principal Democratic sponsor,
said he couldn't recall another instance in House history when
a principal sponsor of a successful bill was denied a spot on
a House-Senate conference. Dingell has served in the House since
1955 and is its most senior member.

"We are all answerable to the people, and that time comes every
two years," Dingell said. "It says bad things about the process
and about those who are in charge."

Dingell, as the leading Democrat, had the authority to name seven
Democrats to the conference committee, and all his appointees
voted for it. He offered to give Norwood one of the Democrats'
slots, but Norwood declined, saying that would kill any opportunity
he might have to influence fellow Republicans.

Even though not a member of the House-Senate conference committee,
Norwood said he would seek admittance to its meetings, which by
tradition are often held in private. Norwood said he would "sit
in that room with a pen and pad and not say a word."

Other Republicans who voted for the HMO reforms warned that the
GOP leadership's position invites a voter backlash.

Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J., went onto the House floor waving a
copy of this week's Newsweek. Its cover headline reads,
"HMO Hell."

"Obviously he hopes to block any legislation that is consistent
with what the House passed," she said later, referring to Hastert.
"It's really a foul play."

GOP leaders defended Hastert's move. Commerce Chairman Tom Bliley,
R-Va., who was named to the conference committee, said, "We are
sending a strong team into negotiations with the Senate."

Supporters of the HMO reform bill held out little hope of negotiating
a final version with the Senate this year, regardless of whom
Hastert put on the negotiating team. Senate Republican leaders
are strongly opposed to broad patients-rights legislation.

While rebuffing Norwood and Ganske, Hastert gave spots to several
Republicans far from the center of the debate. One, Rep. Joe Scarborough
of Florida, did not vote on the bill and has been absent for more
than a month with a serious back injury. Others named to the panel
include the bill's leading opponents, such as Rep. John Boehner,
R-Ohio. The only Republican on the panel who voted for the House
bill is Michael Bilirakis of Florida.

GRAPHIC: PHOTO, B/W, Joe Marquette, AP; Under fire: As Rep. Tillie Fowler, R-Fla., looks on, House Speaker Dennis Hastert talks to reporters Wednesday. His decisions on a House-Senate conference committee for an HMO reform bill drew criticism from some House members.

LOAD-DATE: November 04, 1999

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