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PARTISANSHIP ADDS FEVER TO HEALTH DEBATE

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The Senate's leading Democrat and Republican tore into each others' health care plans Sunday, casting new doubt on their ability to forge an agreement this year to reform the medical system.

"Is there an opportunity for compromise? Maybe," Minority Leader Robert Dole of Kansas said on NBC's "Meet the Press."Sitting elbow-to-elbow with Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine, Dole said Mitchell's sweeping proposal amounted to government-run health care. It would raise taxes and fail to contain costs, he predicted.

Mitchell said offerings by Dole and other Republicans would do too little to provide health care coverage to all Americans. He chided GOP lawmakers for accepting a government-based insurance plan for their health care, yet refusing the same for other citizens.

With his plan dead, President Clinton has embraced Mitchell's proposal as the least he could accept. It aims to cover 95 percent of Americans by 2000, requiring employers to pay part of their workers' premiums if the goal is not reached.

In another sign of the health care divide, Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., said Mitchell's bill does not restrain costs and gives too much power to Washington. Pledging to heavily amend the bill, Kerrey suggested that the Senate may need to override a Clinton veto.

"It should be clear the president does not have a vote in Congress. We need to do our work. He didn't do a very good job on the crime bill, and now we're trying to do our work on health care," Kerrey said on ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley."

Another Democrat, Sen. David Boren of Oklahoma, said of Mitchell's bill, "I think it's dead and we can't even amend it." Appearing on the same CBS show, White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta rejected Boren's scaled-down proposal aimed at wooing GOP senators.

Despite all the mixed signals, Mitchell and Dole insisted health care reform could be passed by Congress this year.

"It is my belief that we will pass both a crime bill and a health care bill this year," Mitchell said.

Dole said a compromise is possible "if we can have some say in what's delivered" and if Democrats "back off" the proposals they're backing now.

"We're not going to move in their direction. That's a government-run health care system and we don't support that. The American people don't support that," he said.

Dole, who said Saturday the first health care votes in the Senate would not come soon, reversed himself Sunday, saying votes could be cast this week.