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Clinton to Senate Democrats: Just Get It Done

By Kathleen Hunter, CQ Staff

November 10, 2009 -- Former President Bill Clinton on Tuesday urged Senate Democrats to set aside their arguments over details and pass an overhaul of the health care system now.

Clinton addressed the Democrats at their weekly party luncheon, speaking from the painful perspective of his own administration's failure to get a health care overhaul through Congress in 1993 and 1994. Democrats lost control of Congress to Republicans in the November 1994 elections.

"There is no perfect bill because there's always unintended consequences," Clinton told reporters afterward. "So there'll be amendments to this effort, whatever they pass, next year and the year after that—and there should be. But the worst thing we can do is nothing. That was my argument."

Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said, "He made a strong case for Congress getting this done this year. There's a general sense that the clock is ticking, certainly in terms of the president being able to focus on the economy next year at the State of the Union."

Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said Clinton's eloquence helped unify the caucus. "His ability to analyze complex issues is unmatched," Conrad said. "He is able to penetrate through the fog of politics and policy better than anyone I have heard."

Several Democrats were impressed by Clinton's focus on the economic impact of a failure to change the health care system.

Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a conservative deficit hawk, said Clinton's most persuasive argument was "that if we don't do something, the trend for increasing costs for health care and insurance premiums is unsustainable."

Bob Casey, D-Pa., said, "I've tried to make the point over time [that] if all you're worried about is long-term debt and the fiscal condition of the country, you should be for health care reform." He said Clinton "thought that by not passing a bill, or not being able to pass a bill in the 90s, that hurt both economically and politically."

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he expects to launch the Senate's health care debate next week, but Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., cautioned that Democratic leaders will not schedule a vote until they know they have the 60 votes necessary to invoke cloture and move on to the bill.

"I want to make sure we have 60 votes committed before we go to the floor, and that's what we're working on," Durbin said.

Reid indicated that a vote on final passage could occur before Christmas, but Durbin acknowledged that it is unlikely a House-Senate conference could finish work in time for Congress to send a final measure to President Obama this year, as the White House had hoped and Democrats had initially promised.

"Our goal is to get it out of the Senate this year," Durbin said.

Abortion Issue
The House narrowly passed its version of the bill (HR 3962), 220–215, on Nov. 7, after an all-out push by the Democratic leadership and the White House.

But in order to get to that point, the leadership had to allow a vote on an amendment concerning abortion funding by Bart Stupak, D-Mich. The amendment would extend a ban on federal funding for abortion to the insurance programs created by the bill and bar insurers selling plans through a new government-run "exchange" from offering policies covering elective abortion to women whose premiums are subsidized by federal funds. The amendment was adopted, 240–194, with 64 Democrats joining 176 Republicans in voting "yes."

The bill (S 1796) that the Senate Finance Committee approved does not change existing law, which bars federal funds from being used for any abortion services. Under the bill, state insurance exchanges would have to include at least one plan that provides abortion coverage and one that does not. The Health and Human Services secretary is required to ensure that only private funds are used for abortion coverage services, a Finance aide said.

Reid, who has voted with Republicans in the past to place limits on abortion, said the Finance bill addresses the issue "in a responsible way." But when pressed, he stopped short of ruling out the possibility of strengthening that language in the bill he is crafting to bring to the floor.

"We're going to continue to work with pro-choice folks and pro-life folks in the Senate and come up with something that's fair and reasonable," he said.

Senators who attended the lunch session with Clinton said the former president steered clear of the topic and other specifics in the bill.

"President Clinton was not at all addressing the abortion issue, but I think he was addressing that whether you are a progressive or a conservative within our caucus, there may be things that you're not going to like," said Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md. "But it's more important to get the job done, and we all need to step back a little and say 'Look, let's do the best we can to make the bill the way we want it, but at the end of the day let's make sure we vote for the bill and get it done."

Time to Digest Over Thanksgiving
If Democrats can muster the 60 votes needed to proceed to a heath care bill next week, Durbin said senators would have a weeklong Thanksgiving break to digest the measure before the real nuts-and-bolts work on amendments begins, most likely the first week of December.

"We do have a Thanksgiving recess, and we're hoping that the bill will be ready for all members to carefully review it during that time, and then, when we return, that we can meet together and work out our differences," Durbin said.

But first, Reid needs a final "score" from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which it not expected until late this week at best.

As soon as they can give us the bill, with a score, we're ready to roll," Durbin said. "We have to reach a point where we have enough of a commitment from CBO that we can assure our colleagues that this bill is going to meet the president's requirement that it doesn't add to the deficit. So we're waiting for that."

Durbin said CBO contacted Reid on Monday night with a number of questions, but he declined to comment on the nature of those questions.

Democratic leaders will "start with the premise" that there "wouldn't be much" Republican support for the bill, Durbin said, meaning that the 60 votes to overcome filibusters will likely need to come from within the Democratic ranks.

The 'Public Option'
Reid, who has said the bill will include a government-run "public option" with an escape hatch for the states, reiterated his support for some type of public insurance plan in the bill that the Senate ultimately passes.

"We're going to move forward," Reid said. "I believe strongly in a public option."

Reid is already working to win over members of his caucus who oppose a public option. The majority leader said he had "a good conversation" early Tuesday with Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., who caucuses with the Democrats but has said he will not vote for cloture before a vote to pass the bill unless the public option is stripped. "I'm confident we'll work something out," Reid said.

First, the leadership needs 60 votes to choke off debate on the motion to call up the bill—a step Lieberman has said he will support.

Lieberman spokesman Marshall Wittmann said Lieberman has not changed his position regarding cloture on a bill that includes a public option, but he declined to comment on whether Reid offered Lieberman any assurances during their Tuesday talk.

Durbin said he was cautiously optimistic that Democrats will reach the 60-vote threshold necessary to call up the bill and begin the debate.

"But until it actually happens, as the whip, I don't take anything for granted," he said. "We had to step aside for the House to finish their work. That's understandable. But now we want to get on this and get moving." 

Alex Wayne contributed to this story

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