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Clinton wobbles on radical health reform

IT WAS meant as a compromise offer to help rescue his floundering health reform legislation. But President Bill Clinton's signal this week that he could accept something less than universal coverage has created confusion, which could further undermine his wobbly presidency.

Yesterday, administration officials from Vice-President Al Gore downwards were attempting to dispel the impression of another Oval Office cave-in. A rueful Mr Clinton insisted that his remarks to state governors on Tuesday had been misunderstood. 'After all my efforts at communicating, the point I really made somehow didn't get through,' he said.

That point, he explained to a meeting with congressional leaders at the White House, was that any bill which did not require insurance coverage for all would not work. But a comment that '95 per cent might be enough' has dismayed many of his liberal supporters, encouraged his Republican opponents, and made the passage of a big healthcare package this year more uncertain.

The controversy comes at a bad time for Mr Clinton, as the White House braces itself for a torrid spell in his presidency. If official pronouncements are to be believed, a decision on what would be a deeply unpopular invasion of Haiti has been put off until September at the earliest, and next week offers the reflected glory of the first Israel-Jordan summit here.

But congressional hearings starting on 26 July will put the Whitewater affair back on the front pages. By 10 August, Mr Clinton's lawyers must file a response to the sexual harassment allegations which have been made by Paula Jones.

Not only health care, but also a much-vaunted dollars 30bn ( pounds 20bn) anti-crime bill is bogged down on Capitol Hill. Perhaps most worrying of all to a poll-obsessed White House, Mr Clinton's standing is at its lowest since the dark days of spring 1993.

A CNN-USA Today survey yesterday said his approval rating has sunk to 42 per cent, compared to 50 per cent who disapprove. Only 33 per cent support his handling of foreign policy and 34 per cent his healthcare initiative, while the public's opinion of their President's toughness, honesty and trustworthiness has nose-dived since January.

His main problem is a perception that he cannot get things done. For the first time since the 1992 election, the poll shows that Republicans, not Democrats, are seen as the party more likely to solve the country's problems.

All of this underlines Mr Clinton's need to secure a deal on health care. But whatever emerges will be very different from his original proposals.

Six months ago he promised to veto any bill which did not ensure universal coverage. That threat has evaporated. So too has his original insistence on the 'employer mandate' whereby companies would have to pay 80 per cent of the cost of insurance. That provision was omitted from the version of the bill passed this month by the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

Republicans, who fiercely oppose the employer mandate, predictably hail Mr Clinton's new 'realism' as a shift towards their position.

But what the President gains on the right, he risks losing on the left, as liberals, especially the minority (90- strong in the House of Representatives) favouring a Canadian-style single-payer system, reconsider their position. Not one of the half- dozen versions of health reform circulating on Capitol Hill commands a majority.

Complicating matters further are November's mid- term congressional elections. Expected Democratic losses will weaken Mr Clinton's control of the House and Senate, making an ambitious bill less likely in 1995 or 1996.

For the President, health reform may boil down to a choice between half a loaf now, or none at all thereafter.