WASHINGTON -- Health care reform legislation continued its tortured progress through Congress last week, with almost no discernable movement in either the House or Senate tax-writing committees.
If media coverage is any indication, the biggest news of the week came on Thursday during the House Ways and Means Committee's drafting session. That day marked the debut of Acting Chairman Sam Gibbons, D-Fla. Gibbons took over from Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-III., when Rostenkowski was indicted on fraud and embezzlement charges May 31.
as he entered the room, nearly two dozen photographers crowded around Gibbons, who let them snap a few pictures, and then shooed them away. But for the camera bugs, Gibbons was only the opening act for the day's main event: the appearance of Rostenkowski, who took a seat to the right of Gibbons.
For most of the session, a swarm of photographers kept their lense trained on Rostenkowski, clicking away each time he waved his hand or laughed in conversation with one of his colleagues. But anybody looking for a sound bite would have been disappointed; Rostenkowski made no public statement as Gibbons gaveled the session to order and the proceedings moves forward.
Gibbons, meanwhile, had hoped to propel the committee forward by offering his own health care reform bill and having the panel begin voting on it in the Thursday session, something Rostenkowski had not been able to do in the weeks leading up to his indictment. Rostenkowski had said he was impeded by a lack of consensus among his committee members and delays in obtaining revenue estimates from the Congressional Budget Office.
As soon as the indictment was handed down, Gibbons jumped in and immediately ordered a draft bill from the committe staff, even though he was thousands of miles away in Europe, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.
On Thursday, Capitol Hill observers crammed into the Ways and Means hearing room expecting the panel to finally begin taking some tough votes on health care provisions. But Gibbons short-circuited the session almost immediately, announcing an indefinite delay in the committee's work.
Gibbons had run into one of the same obstacles that had beddeviled Rostenkowski: the Congressional Budget Office. Gibbons announced that he could not release details of his bill or let the committee begin working on it because the CBO had not given him its estimates of how much the various provisions would cost the federal government.
"It is my hope I can finally present a [bill], but I will not do so until we have those CBO figuresk" Gibbons told a surprised and disappointed audience.
Gibbons' counterpart, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Daniel P. Moynihan, D-N.Y., wasn't having any better luck last week. Moynihan has been spending the last several weeks meeting in closed session with his members, trying to find areas of agreement on how to reform health care.
Moynihan had reportedly become convinced that President Clinton's plan would probably not fly in the Senate. He was said to be readying his own proposal, patterned after Clinton's, in an effort to determine once and for all how much support the Senate would give the President on the issue.
But as the front-page headlines in Thursday's major newspaper were blaring that Moynihan would unveil his bill that day, he also was retreating. Moynihan briefed committeee members on the plan that afternoon, but declined to release any details publicly; he, too, was waiting for delayed CBO numbers.
So, the glacial pace continues, with no end in sight. With Rostenkowski's indictment over with and Moynihan's meetings completed, Capitol Hill watchers had expected some sort of jump-start to the process, but they didn't get it. For the foreseeable future, progress on health care will probably come in baby steps, not in leaps and bounds.