Congress leader plea bargains to keep job

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The Independent Online
CONGRESSMAN Dan Rostenkowski, whose support is critical for President Clinton's health-care reform, is trying to retain his powerful position as chairman of the House Ways and Means committee by a plea bargain over charges that he benefited from petty corruption in the House post office. By pleading guilty to a lesser charge he hopes to avoid a felony indictment which would force him to give up his post.

An inquiry into the theft of petty cash by House post office clerks in 1991 has since broadened to threaten Mr Rostenkowski, one of the most powerful Democratic politicians in Congress. Last year the former House postmaster, Robert Rota, in a plea bargain of his own, implicated Mr Rostenkowski in a complicated embezzlement scheme whereby congressmen drained off cash by claiming it was for legitimate office expenses such as stamps.

Justice Department officials confirmed yesterday that they were having talks with Mr Rostenkowski's lawyers but were pessimistic that he would get all he wanted. 'People in hell want iced water,' said one official. 'Nine out of ten times defence counsel do not get what they want or reasonably close to what they want.' In Mr Rostenkowski's case the department is eager to avoid charges of political favouritism.

As the House and the Senate consider health-care reform this week Mr Rostenkowski's support is vital for Mr Clinton. The Chicago Democrat promised to do whatever it takes on the Ways and Means committee to 'help the President reach his goals'. Nobody expects Mr Clinton's original health-care reform proposal - with employers forced to pay for employees' coverage and caps on insurance premiums - to pass but there is intense pressure for radical change of some kind.

If he pleads guilty to a misdemeanour Mr Rostenkowski can keep his committee chairmanship, but a felony indictment would force him to step down immediately under the House rules. He might also promise to resign later in return for being allowed to plead guilty to lesser charges now.

In March Mr Rostenkowski, 66, faced down Democratic opposition to win the primary in his home district in Chicago which has returned him 18 times. But the House post office investigation has broadened to include everything in Mr Rostenkowski's office accounts. In the tradition of machine politicians from Chicago Mr Rostenkowksi appears to have missed no opportunity to supplement his personal income through the perquisites of office.

Mr Rostenkowski is also criticised for being too willing to compromise with the insurance companies which oppose Mr Clinton's health plan. In particular he offered to give them the right to refuse coverage to people with chronic illnesses.

Although Mr Clinton has made health-reform the centre of his domestic programme he has failed to win public backing. An effective counter-offensive by his opponents has eroded support for his plan. A Washington Post/ABC poll this week showed 50 per cent of Americans against it and only 44 per cent in favour. Some 52 per cent say his plan should be rejected or heavily revised.