Congress cannot debate the merits of President Clinton's health-care plan yet, because he has not proposed it; but lawmakers already are arguing about when and how to consider it.

Sen. George J. Mitchell of Maine, the majority leader, has urged that it be combined in one big bill with Clinton's tax and spending proposals aimed at long-range deficit reduction. He sees that as the best way of getting a health-care measure enacted this summer.Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, responded that health legislation will be hard enough to pass on its own, and might not be achievable in 1993 anyhow. So, he argues, it should not have to carry the extra burden of any of the other problems in the big deficit-reduction bill.

Their dispute reflects not only different views of the legislative attractiveness of a bill neither has seen yet but also some profound differences between the House and Senate.

One is procedural. Gluing health care on to the deficit measure, in a procedure known as a reconciliation bill, would allow the Senate to consider it without risk of filibuster and under rules requiring amendments to be relevant - a luxury for Senate leaders but normal in the House and for almost any rational legislative body.

Some House leaders are more sympathetic to Mitchell's procedural problems than Rostenkowski, who says the Senate just ought to get itself some sensible rules.

But they share his concern about whether a complicated bill like this can possibly be dealt with and passed under an expedited schedule.

Their doubts reflect another major difference between the two houses. A remarkable number of senators are conversant with the complexities of health-care issues and have not left it to aides to tell them what they think.

Mitchell and a handful of Democratic colleagues, notably Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, spent days last year in one-on-one sessions with other senators, explaining the issues and weighing the objections.

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Republicans are equally familiar with the details, thanks to a panel headed by Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island. As Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico put it Friday, "Most of my Republican colleagues can go out and make a speech on managed competition."

But in the House, detailed understanding is spottier. So Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, the majority leader, worries that forcing members to vote quickly will leave them prey to opponents and lobbyists who will not need more than a few minutes to help them figure out why they oppose it.

The arguments over timing and procedures reflect one important common concern. Lawmakers consider it essential to their own career prospects that a major effort be made to solve the health-care problems of rising costs and uneven coverage.

Even from Republicans like Domenici, the argument against an expedited procedure is framed in terms of getting a bill passed. He contends it would be harder for the Senate to pass a major bill like this under expedited procedures - only 20 hours of debate for all elements of the measure - because that would "eunuch the Senate."

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