WASHINGTON — Former President Bill Clinton urged Senate Democrats on Tuesday 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, held on the cusp of Senate debate on intensely controversial legislation. The House cleared its version of the bill late Saturday night on a narrow, party-line vote of 220-215.
Clinton made an unusual visit to the party's weekly closed-door caucus meeting at the invitation of Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has said he hopes the Senate can vote on a bill before the year is out and took a step during the day to allow debate to begin as early as next week.
Aides said Reid has yet to receive final information from the Congressional Budget Office on the costs and coverage implications of the still-secret legislation he submitted more than two weeks ago. As soon as he does, he intends to launch a historic debate on legislation to expand coverage to millions who lack it, crack down on insurance industry practices and curb the rise in health care spending nationally.
Several Democrats who attended the meeting with Clinton said the former president did not express an opinion on many of the controversial issues embedded in the health care debate. These range from calls for a government-run insurance option to the availability of abortion coverage in private and government insurance.
"He wasn't asked that and he didn't volunteer to solve Sen. Reid's immediate problems," said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.
Instead, several Democrats said, Clinton told them that expanding health care is good policy, and at the same time the best politics.
"He did address it, essentially to say, 'You're going to do it, and then people are going to begin to see that none of the bad things people are talking about will come to pass,'" said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., 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 in dramatic fashion in 1994 without ever coming to a vote in either house, and is widely 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 Cardin told reporters Clinton has "great respect from every member of our caucus." And his 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.
In the House, Democrats were torn for weeks over the design of a government coverage option, and 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, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "We spent four weeks on a farm bill last Congress. Eight weeks on energy in the last decade."
There were political repercussions from the House vote.
Rep. Anh (Joseph) Cao, R-La., the only Republican to support the legislation, said some of his donors have asked for their money back and two of his fundraising events have been canceled.
House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., said he was disappointed by Cao's vote, but he said he plans no political retaliation. Cao, a Vietnamese-American, represents a New Orleans-based district that is black, poor and overwhelmingly Democratic. He defeated William Jefferson last year after the veteran lawmaker was indicted on corruption charges.
Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Charles Babington, Donna Cassata, Julie Davis and Erica Werner contributed to this report.