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BIPARTISAN PANEL CONSIDERS HEALTH-PLAN TERMS

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Bipartisan compromise on health reform may be in the offing in the Senate, where a group of Republicans and Democrats has met to consider a plan that would aim for universal coverage without requiring employers to pay for their workers' health insurance.

That requirement, known as the employer mandate, is central to President Clinton's proposal and to the modified version of the Clinton plan drafted by Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy, whose committee is currently debating his proposal.Division over the mandate is a large part of the reason why the other key Senate panel to consider health reform, the Finance Committee, has yet to begin voting on a plan.

Staff members for the group of senators have been meeting for weeks to discuss a compromise. Some of the senators met just before the Memorial Day recess to discuss the proposal, which would require employers to offer, but not pay for, insurance for workers, said a congressional participant who spoke Tuesday on condition of anonymity.

The plan would include some system of pooling individuals and workers in small companies to increase their bargaining power in purchasing insurance.

Sen. David Durenberger, R-Minn., confirmed he was a member of what he called "the mainstream group." He said the group is "defining where the middle is."

"The only place you can get to reform is from the middle," said Durenberger, who serves on both key Senate committees debating health reform. "You can't get there from either the Republican side or from the Clinton side. And we're running out of time."

The proposal would be financed by, among other things, cuts in Medicare, a 75-cent cigarette tax and a limit on the tax deductibility of health insurance premiums.