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BENNETT SAYS BIPARTISAN BILL IS PROMISING

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Two Democrats and two Republicans, including Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, are introducing a bipartisan health-care reform bill that Bennett says may break a Senate stalemate.

"It deals with the noncontroversial issues in a very responsible way. It gets done what can be done now without running the risks of new initiatives in areas where the water is very, very murky," Bennett said.Bennett, who had been a chief negotiator for Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole with a variety of warring factions on health-care reform, said the bill solves many political problems that otherwise may block reform this year.

"There is a growing feeling that: The (Democratic Majority Leader George) Mitchell bill cannot be fixed, so: The Mitchell bill cannot pass. The Democrats are looking for somewhere to go that can pass," he said.

"They clearly cannot support the (Bob) Dole bill with the Republican leader's name on it," he said. "So with two Republicans and two Democrats offering a bill - which is already gaining steam in the House - they have a safe haven where they can go."

Bennett said the bill, which they plan to introduce early next week, is the same as one introduced in the House on Thursday by a group of 10 moderate Republicans and Democrats.

Bennett is sponsoring the bill with Sens. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.; David Boren, D-Okla.; and Sam Nunn, D-Ga.

Bennett said he has not discussed the bill with Dole but Domenici had "and he wasn't discouraged."

He said he figures 10 to 15 Democrats don't want to vote for the Mitchell bill and may support the compromise. "And I haven't heard of any Republicans who would oppose this approach," Bennett said. "That could give us 60 votes" - which is 10 more than is needed for passage.

"But things are still very fluid. George Mitchell could come down hard against it and order all of his troops away from it," he said.

Bennett said the bill would provide a basis to build upon next year "in some of those murky areas where we would like to take more time. And I pledge myself to address those areas again."

A joint statement issued by Bennett, Domenici, Nunn and Boren said the bill "is a voluntary, market-oriented approach with no mandates, no massive entitlement programs, no new taxes and no government price controls or excessive bureaucracy."

They said it would allow people to change jobs without losing their insurance, ban pre-existing condition clauses and create voluntary small-business purchasing cooperatives to make insurance more affordable.

They said it would also provide new assistance for working families who currently cannot afford private health insurance.

"We believe a major change in social policy of this magnitude should not be decided upon party lines. Comprehensive health-care reform should be built upon a broad, bipartisan foundation and not a (bare-majority) 51-vote strategy," they said.

Bennett said, "I think it has a better chance of passage than anything else on the floor - but, of course, that doesn't mean it will pass, either."

He added that he has been talking to Republicans and Democrats for months seeking a unified approach, "and this is a product of that talking."