At Forum, Democrats Differ on Health Care

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, speaking during a forum on health care in Las Vegas, said his health plan would not require new revenue.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, speaking during a forum on health care in Las Vegas, said his health plan would not require new revenue. (By Eric Jamison -- Associated Press)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 25, 2007

LAS VEGAS, March 24 -- Democratic presidential candidates were united here Saturday in pledging to provide universal health care to all Americans but differed over how quickly the changes could be achieved and, more important, whether they would have to raise taxes to pay for it.

The candidates addressed what has become perhaps the nation's most intractable domestic issue and all said that, because of rising costs of care and the lack of insurance for about 45 million Americans, incremental steps are no longer adequate.

"What we need is big, bold, dramatic change," former North Carolina senator John Edwards said.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was part of the last significant effort to overhaul the system during her husband's administration. That attempt failed, but the Democratic candidates said Saturday that the conditions exist to push for dramatic change.

But Clinton warned that getting there would still be difficult. "We don't just need candidates to have a plan," she said. "All of them have plans. We need a movement. We need people to make this the number one voting issue in the '08 election."

The long-scheduled presidential forum on health care came just two days after Edwards made an announcement about the health of his wife, Elizabeth. She was for treated for breast cancer after the 2004 election, and he said Thursday that the disease had returned. She joined her husband at the forum, sitting in the front row as he outlined his plan and giving him a hug and kiss as he descended from the stage amid the flash of cameras and applause from the audience.

Edwards repeated his vow to remain in the presidential campaign despite his wife's illness. "This is not the first challenge like this that Elizabeth and I have been through," Edwards said, recalling not only his wife's initial bout with breast cancer but also the death of their son 11 years ago. "We know what it's like to function in a very difficult environment."

The other candidates who appeared here praised Elizabeth Edwards for her courage and called her an inspiration to other Americans in her battle against incurable cancer. But Edwards, acknowledging the outpouring of support that he and his wife have received since Thursday, noted that millions of women deal with similar illnesses, often without adequate health insurance or the financial resources that he and his wife have.

"I think we're getting too much credit," he said.

Saturday's forum was jointly sponsored by the Service Employees International Union and the Center for American Progress Action Fund, part of a left-of-center think tank based in Washington. The forum was moderated by Karen Tumulty of Time magazine. It was on the campus of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, in the state that is scheduled to host the second caucus of the 2008 Democratic nomination battle.

The candidates spoke and fielded questions individually but did not engage one another. Also participating were Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich and former Alaska senator Mike Gravel.

Edwards was the only candidate who came to the forum having put forth a specific plan for universal coverage and said it would cost $90 billion to $120 billion a year. He also was the most explicit about the revenue implications of universal coverage, saying that to pay for it he would raise taxes by rolling back President Bush's tax cuts for Americans earning more than $200,000 a year.

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