CONGRESS GETS EARFUL FROM BUSINESS ON HEALTH CARE

Byline: Joyce Barrett

WASHINGTON--As the health care issue takes center stage on Capitol Hill, members of Congress are listening closely to what businesses at home have to say.
Local retailers, restaurateurs and small business owners have met repeatedly with their Congressional delegations and conveyed a consistent message: Oppose employer mandates of any kind.
Organized under the umbrella Coalition for Jobs and Health Care, the grass roots groups take their marching orders from Washington representatives who keep tallies on Congressional supporters and opponents.
Operating out of the National Retail Federation offices here, the coalition is working a target list of 40 House members and 15 senators who are classified as either undecided on health care, or in need of some antimandate pressure from business.
This antimandate message is the axis upon which the health debate is spinning. House members, ambivalent over their choice of four plans, have delayed any debate for at least a week until they get official estimates on how much the plans will cost and how much money the proposed taxes and spending cuts will generate.
The Senate has been debating reform for almost a week, and appears further from consensus than it did before the rancorous arguments began.
National associations appear during Capitol Hill press conferences almost daily to urge Congress to delay consideration of plans featuring employer mandates that have been offered by Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D., Maine) and House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D., Mo.). But it's at meetings at home with local leaders where the antimandate message is best conveyed.
The Kansas Retail Council is one of many state groups that has worked its congressional delegation and has been instrumental in garnering at least one key House vote against employer mandates. Rep. Jim Slattery (D., Kan.), who is leaving Congress after this term because he's running for governor of Kansas, came out against mandates earlier this year after hearing from hometown retailers. A member of the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee, Slattery's allegiance to local business groups stymied efforts by committee chairman John Dingell (D., Mich.) to build consensus among his panel members.
Kansas retailers, along with the Kansas chapter of National Federation of Independent Businesses, began lobbying Slattery last winter, shortly after Clinton offered his health care plan that would require employers to contribute 80 percent toward the cost of their workers' health care premiums. The business leaders met with Slattery in early March to describe the impact Clinton's plan would have on them, said Bud Grant, executive vice president of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the Kansas Retail Council in Topeka.
Hal Hudson, the Kansas state director for the NFIB, who also met with Slattery, remembers that Slattery told them he was getting enormous pressure from Dingell to either back an employer mandate reform package or at least not vote against it when it came up in committee. Slattery asked the business leaders what to do, Hudson told WWD in a telephone interview from Topeka. "We said, vote no," Hudson said.
Shortly after, Slattery returned to Washington and announced he was opposing employer mandates. "I try to get the views of the people I work for before I take a position," Slattery said.

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