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Jewish World Review June 22, 2001 / 1 Tamuz, 5761

Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover
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Consumer Reports

The push on patients' rights -- WHEN Jim Jeffords of Vermont jumped the Republican ship for independent status in the Senate, many of his jilted colleagues sought to shrug off the loss. Trent Lott, the Republican honcho demoted to the status of minority leader as a result, suggested it was no big deal because the partisan numbers may have changed, but the people hadn't. He even offered that in some ways he preferred being in the minority.

But it was a big deal, as already demonstrated by the fact that patients' bill of rights legislation is currently being debated on the Senate floor. Had the Republicans maintained their majority, there is no doubt it would still be languishing in some dark Senate corner, in accordance with President Bush's wish.

The new majority leader, Democrat Tom Daschle, says he intends to keep the Senate in session through the July 4 recess if a patients' bill hasn't been passed by it by the end of next week, when the recess is to begin. After early delaying tactics, moderate Senate Republicans are working to find compromises that will trim back what their party considers the most egregious aspects of the Democratic bill, which has notable bipartisan support, including that of the Bush bete noir, Sen. John McCain.

The major sticking point is what it always has been - the Republicans' determination to ward off what they consider would be excessive lawsuits against health maintenance organizations. They cite their old bugaboo, the trial lawyers, as the chief beneficiaries of the Democratic bill, rather than the millions of Americans who would benefit by being able to haul HMOs into court when they refuse insurance coverage and benefits.

The Republicans have insisted that any lawsuits resulting from federal legislation should be tried in federal courts. The Democrats, led by Sen. Ted Kennedy, say state courts have much more experience in this field and are much more accessible to the average patient. He chides the Republicans as traditional defenders of states' rights for their reluctance to use the state courts.

Republican leaders in the House have come up with a compromise in which patients could go to state courts under limited circumstances, but Bush has not indicated whether he would agree. His favorite mantra is that "the idea is to serve more patients, not to create more lawsuits in America."

In terms of public opinion, it is a losing argument. Poll after poll has shown wide voter support for a patients' bill of rights, and if the Republicans succeed in burying one, no matter what it does or doesn't contain and for whatever reason, they are going to take the heat. And if a bill passes and Bush vetoes it on grounds it will result in too much litigation and hence force employers to reduce their contributions to health insurance or drop it altogether, he almost certainly will find his already slipping popularity taking a bigger nosedive.

The latest New York Times/CBS News poll has little but bad news in it for Bush. On virtually every issue raised - tax cuts, prescription drug benefits, environmental protection, oil production vs. conservation - voters indicated they are at odds with him. His overall job approval rating has dropped in three months from 60 percent to 53.

None of this relates directly to the Republican loss of Senate control, but that loss gives the Democrats a golden opportunity to force their own agenda front and center, obliging Bush to deal with issues he'd rather duck. Even before the Times/CBS poll underscored that voters are closer to them than to the president on the major issues they care about, Daschle and new Democratic committee chairmen had made clear there was going to be a new day in the Senate.

Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, the new chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said even before Bush was rebuffed by European leaders on his pitch to break the ABM Treaty that the Senate wants much more proof that an ABM system can actually work.

The new Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Pat Leahy, likewise has said he is not going to roll over for ultraconservative judicial nominees sought by Bush, while promising vaguely not to hold up nominations arbitrarily the way the Republicans repeatedly did during the Clinton years.

All this illustrates how wrong were Republicans like Lott who pooh-poohed the Jeffords defection.

Comment on JWR contributor Jules Witcover's column by clicking here.

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