Clinton goes for bust on health care: President calls in Democratic leaders to prepare for tough battle on showpiece legislation

BARELY 12 hours after a State of the Union address setting out his vision of historic domestic reform, President Bill Clinton yesterday summoned Democratic leaders to work out tactics for what is sure to be an extraordinarily busy and contentious congressional session, featuring an especially fierce battle on the President's most cherished goal of health care reform.

By turns hectoring and inspirational - and sometimes downright Reaganesque - the President asked Congress to move fast and far on three issues that could become his legacy: a health care bill guaranteeing coverage for all; the biggest overhaul of the country's welfare system in 30 years; and measures to tackle both the symptoms and causes of the criminal violence which 'cripples our society'.

As expected, the widely acclaimed speech was devoted almost entirely to domestic concerns. Foreign and defence policy were a mere parenthesis between sections on health care and crime. But even by Mr Clinton's high rhetorical standards it was a tour de force.

For the first time he set a date, 'this spring', for introduction of the long-promised 'comprehensive' welfare reform bill. But health care remains the centrepiece of his plans. Responding to rival, less ambitious schemes circulating in Congress, Mr Clinton dramatically threatened to veto any measure which did not contain guaranteed universal coverage.

The assembled senators, congressmen and top government officials were reduced to unusual silence as Mr Clinton told them that on health care, 'the people are way ahead of the politicians'.

Whether he has to implement that threat depends less on anything the Republicans can do than on his ability to keep control of the often competing liberal and moderate wings of his own party.

But both Tuesday night's speech and its stage props were already part of the balancing act. By making plain that universal health coverage was non-negotiable, Mr Clinton delivered a large sop to liberals unhappy with the 'tough' crime bill the President wants and his hard-nosed approach to welfare - including the demand that after two years on welfare people who can work must once more do so.

As a sign of the administration's determination to mend fences with key union allies after the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) row, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organisations leader, Lane Kirkland, was seated in the distinguished visitors' gallery next to the First Lady, Hillary Clinton, chief architect of the health plan.

But rhetoric and symbolism on their own will not suffice. Pugnacious as ever, the Senate Republican leader, Bob Dole, declared yesterday that universal health care was in trouble 'because the President doesn't have the votes on the Democratic side'. This was a reference to moderate Democrats who want a more gradualist approach.

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