A spokesman for Gov. Michael Dukakis vehemently denied that presidential politics played a part in the timing of universal health care legislation approved by the Massachusetts House Ways and Means Committee Thursday.

The legislation would provide compulsory health insurance coverage for 600,000 uninsured Massachusetts citizens.The committee cleared the way for a floor vote in the House on Monday that is expected to lead to quick action in the Senate and a likely signing into law before the Super Tuesday presidential primaries on March 8.

But as a result of comments attributed to committee Chairman Richard A. Voke, D-Chelsea, there is speculation that the Dukakis administration may actually have delayed action until after the Feb. 16 New Hampshire primary

because of potential damage from opposition by small business.

According to at least one lobbyist who attended briefings on the bill Wednesday, Rep. Voke had said that they were interested in getting the bill through before Super Tuesday, but they didn't want it before New Hampshire

because they were afraid small business could hurt them in New Hampshire.

While saying she was unable to confirm the comment, Rep. Voke's press secretary Ann Murphy denied that the committee had delayed the issue.

I think he meant the governor's people, not us, Ms. Murphy said.

She's wrong, replied Dukakis press secretary Jim Dorsey. We in no way would seek to dictate the schedule of the House or the schedule of the Senate on it, except to say that it is something that is long past due and we believe ought to happen as quickly as possible.

But while another lobbyist pointed out that the governor so far has seemed powerless to control events in the legislature, the perception of national political pressure has persisted throughout the health care battle.

All the rumors have been constant that presidential politics have had a lot to do with the timing, he said.

The complex health care package has suffered at least two previous delays that threatened to scuttle the measure, and in both instances, small business opposition played a key role.

Gov. Dukakis' original plan first hit a stone wall in the House last October as lawmakers reacted to what one observer called the dry cleaner issue.

Legislators considering the proposal said they were subject to constant haranguing from small business people opposed to the measure every time they

went to dry cleaners or gas stations in their districts.

An extensive reworking of the bill by Senate Ways and Means Chairman Patricia McGovern, D-Lawrence, eased some of the burden on small business by substituting some state funding for larger employers' surcharges to provide insurance for uninsured workers.

Sen. McGovern built a strong consensus for the bill that included hospitals, insurance and business interests. Rep. Voke has tried to bring more of small business into the fold with an exemption for companies that employ six or fewer workers from the requirement to provide health insurance.

But the move is not expected to end opposition from small businesses, which are very much on the warpath, said Mary Jo McCarthy, Massachusetts legislative committee chairman of the Small Business Association of New England.

Never mind exempting them from a bill that doesn't solve their problem, she said, citing surveys indicating that many small businesses cannot find affordable group plans.

The McGovern consensus also may fall apart in new conflicts between commercial insurers and Massachusetts Blue Cross.