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Clinton urges Democrats to pass health reform

Former president Bill Clinton spoke with reporters after yesterday’s closed-door caucus meeting to discuss heath care reform. Former president Bill Clinton spoke with reporters after yesterday’s closed-door caucus meeting to discuss heath care reform. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)
By David Espo
Associated Press / November 11, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Former president Bill Clinton urged Senate Democrats yesterday to pass health care legislation by year’s end, pointedly telling skittish lawmakers that an imperfect bill is preferable to another failure like the one he and the party endured in 1994.

“It’s not important to be perfect here. It’s important to act, to move, to start the ball rolling,’’ the former president told reporters after the closed-door meeting. “The worst thing to do is nothing.’’

He said he also told senators that the bill is an “economic imperative’’ because the United States cannot resist the toxic combination of exorbitant medical costs and nearly 50 million uninsured for much longer.

Clinton made an unusual visit to the party’s weekly closed-door caucus meeting at the invitation of majority leader Harry Reid, waiting to receive final information from the Congressional Budget Office on the costs and coverage implications of the legislation he submitted before starting the full Senate debate.

Several Democrats who attended the meeting with Clinton said the former president did not express an opinion on many of the controversial issues in the health care debate, including calls for a government-run insurance option and the availability of abortion coverage in private and government insurance.

Instead, several Democrats said, Clinton told them that expanding health care is good policy, and at the same time the best politics.

Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, said the former president reflected on his own experience on the issue and told Democrats that “we got lost in the magnitude of the problem, and in search for a more perfect answer I lost the fight.’’

Clinton’s attempt to enact nationwide health coverage collapsed dramatically in 1994 without ever coming to a vote in either house and is cited as a contributing factor in the Democrats’ loss of control of Congress in that year’s midterm elections.

Republicans are attempting to stir echoes of that era, attacking various Democratic versions of the legislation as a government takeover of health care, and warning that moderate and conservative Democrats risk losing their seats if they vote for it.

Given the former president’s experience, he may have seemed like a curious choice to speak to the caucus. But Senator Max Baucus, one of the architects of the current Senate health care bill, said, “People trust him.’’

And Clinton’s advice - not to get caught up in the details - is a message Reid and the White House hope rank-and-file Democrats will take to heart as they debate the complex legislation.

Before the House cleared its version of the bill late Saturday night on a narrow, party-line vote of 220 to 215, Democrats were torn for weeks over the design of a government coverage option. Once that was resolved, Speaker Nancy Pelosi had to confront a mini-rebellion among Hispanic lawmakers concerned with the bill’s treatment of illegal immigrants and a division over limitations on abortion.

Whenever Reid begins debate, Republicans say it will last for weeks if not months, calling the end-of-the-year timetable into question.

“We’re going to spend a number of weeks on this, reminiscent of important Senate debates in the recent past,’’ said the Republican leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “We spent four weeks on a farm bill last Congress. Eight weeks on energy in the last decade.’’

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