The resignation of Bob Dole from his Senate seat and post as majority leader may make it easier to pass health legislation this year, lawmakers said last week.
But other Capitol Hill observers said politics still may be an obstacle to health reform.
The two leading candidates to succeed Dole as Senate majority leader are Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, both from Mississippi. Oklahoman Don Nickles had been in the running but bowed out to pursue the GOP's No. 2 leadership slot.
Dole, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said his resignation would be effective by June 11. He said he was leaving the Senate to devote his time to the presidential campaign.
Lott and Nickles are staunch conservatives; both have been strong supporters of medical savings accounts. Cochran is a moderate. Nickles serves on the Finance Medicaid subcommittee and was widely thought to be one of the unidentified Republican senators who used parliamentary procedures to bottle up health insurance reform legislation earlier this year.
Both Lott and Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.), one of the sponsors of the Senate insurance reform bill, said Dole's decision wouldn't alter the content of the Kassebaum-Kennedy bill, which is designed to improve health insurance coverage.
The Senate and House have passed their own versions of health insurance reform, and the two sides began meeting last week to hash out the differences. But there have been no formal negotiations between GOP leaders and the White House.
While the change in Senate majority leadership may not affect the substance of the insurance bill, Senate Democrats said Dole's departure probably will make it easier to enact the legislation this year. With the focus off presidential politics, the new majority leader will have more freedom to compromise.
"What Dole has done in the last few weeks is to follow a campaign strategy rather than a legislative strategy," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).
Republicans seemed to agree but put the blame for stalling the health insurance reform legislation on the White House.
"This means the (Clinton) administration has to go back to the drawing board," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). "Their strategy was to have one difficult vote after another to run against him as a senator......This may open things up."
But others said that even after Dole leaves, presidential politics will continue to play a hand in the Senate.
"We will still be in the midst of a presidential campaign, and Republicans are still going to want to pass measures that help them and, by extension, hurt (President Clinton)," said Frederick Graefe, a lawyer with the Washington firm of Baker & Hostetler. "The net result is the chances of passage are still 50-50 at best."
Charles Huntington, Washington office director for the American Academy of Family Physicians, said the loss of Dole's leadership makes it less likely that insurance reform will pass.
"Insurance reform seems to be hopelessly bogged down because nobody seems to know what the political calculus is," Huntington said. "Every day that goes by makes it less and less likely. There's always been a bunch of people who don't want it to happen. It's going to take some strong leadership in the Senate."