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On Hill, Clinton gives a health-care pep talk

'The worst thing to do is nothing,' he tells Democratic senators

Former president Bill Clinton talks to reporters after his lunchtime meeting with Senate Democrats.
Former president Bill Clinton talks to reporters after his lunchtime meeting with Senate Democrats. (Charles Dharapak/associated Press)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Former president Bill Clinton urged Senate Democrats on Tuesday to resolve their differences with a health-care bill and pass an overhaul as soon as possible. Summoning the lessons of his own history with health-care reform, Clinton warned, "The worst thing to do is nothing."

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Clinton's appearance at a caucus luncheon came three days after President Obama delivered a similar message to House members, after which the House passed its health-care bill.

Clinton noted the grim consequences of the failed reform effort 15 years ago, when he was in office: Democrats lost control of Congress in that year's midterm elections, health-care costs skyrocketed, and the rate of Americans without insurance continued to rise. This time, the former president admonished, senators should compromise for the sake of a deal.

"It's not important to be perfect here. It's important to act, to move, to start the ball rolling," Clinton told reporters after the meeting. "There will be amendments to this effort, whatever they pass, next year and the year after and the year after, and there should be. It's a big, complicated, organic thing. But the worst thing to do is nothing."

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) invited Clinton to speak at the weekly session "to share his insights," said Reid spokesman Jim Manley. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a former senior Clinton aide, also urged him to attend, Manley said.

Democratic lawmakers have yet to read the health-care bill, which Reid is expected to unveil early next week. The leader is awaiting a cost analysis from the Congressional Budget Office on a bill that merges the legislative work of two committees. In the meantime, Reid is scrambling to unify the 60 members of his caucus behind a procedural motion to bring the legislation to the floor.

Reid told reporters Tuesday morning that he expected floor action to begin next week and said the House and Senate could produce a final bill by Christmas.

But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he would use all available parliamentary options to ensure a lengthy debate, with no shortcuts. "The Senate is a place where the American people get to weigh in, where there are amendments on a whole, broad array of issues. And we will have lots of amendments. They may have, as well," he said.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the Senate leadership, said Democrats came away from the lunchtime meeting with "real optimism we can get it done this year."

Other Democrats said they were impressed by Clinton's presentation.

"He made a strong case for Congress getting this done this year," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). "I think there is a general sense that the clock is ticking . . . that getting it done this year will in effect clear the tables and allow the focus to be on jobs, and infrastructure and education. He made a compelling case for that position."

Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), the only Democrat who has yet to support bringing a bill to the Senate floor, noted that Clinton appealed to lawmakers not to expect their ideological ideal. "He said you need to pass the best bill that you can," Nelson said. "Getting the best bill is not only good for the people, it's good politics -- and it's that simple."

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