WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats, struggling to reach agreement on how to overhaul the country's health care system, got some practical political advice Tuesday from former President Bill Clinton, whose own effort collapsed 15 years ago.
Don't get too stubborn or demanding as you consider different pieces of the vast bill, he urged them at a closed-door Capitol meeting. Just pass something.
"It's not important to be perfect. It's important to move," Clinton said he told the senators. "The worst thing we can do is nothing. ... There is no perfect bill because there are always unintended consequences," he said, recalling his remarks after the meeting.
"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," the former president said.
Clinton's pitch came as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he hoped that the full Senate could begin considering a health care plan next week. Reid faces enormous hurdles, starting with simply getting the debate under way, since under Senate rules it will take 60 votes to cut off debate so the bill can be considered, and it's unclear whether Reid has those votes yet, even though Democrats control 60 of the 100 Senate seats.
Should the debate proceed, it still looks doubtful that Congress can meet President Barack Obama's goal of finishing health care legislation this year.
"I hope so, but count the days," said Senate Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "Our goal is to make sure it's out of the Senate this year."
The House of Representatives passed its version of the legislation Saturday. If the Senate passes a different version, as is likely, the two bills must be merged into one, and each chamber must pass that before Obama can sign it into law.
Democratic moderates have balked at several aspects of the legislation, including the government-run insurance plan, which would compete with private insurers. They also have concerns about the overall cost and the impact on small business.
Clinton's appearance, suggested by Senate leaders and the White House, was seen as a way to calm them.
Two Democratic centrists, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, are from Clinton's home state of Arkansas. Another, Nebraska's Ben Nelson, was friendly with Clinton when both were governors in the early 1990s.
However, Clinton's appearance Tuesday didn't appear to sway anyone.
"At the end of the day, you make your own decision," Nelson said, adding that he's particularly worried about whether the legislation would hold down health costs.
It's unrealistic to think that a former president's pitch could change votes, one analyst observed.
"These arguments are pretty general,' said Merle Black, a professor of politics and government at Emory University in Atlanta. "Every one of those senators is looking through the lens of their particular state."
Still, some senators saw Clinton's talk as useful.
"People trust him," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont.
Senate Democratic leaders are expected to offer a bill that includes a public option that states can opt out of, would bar insurers from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions and would tax high-end insurance plans.
Clinton urged senators to view the health care overhaul in broad terms. See it as a way of making the economy healthier and as a key part of reducing the deficit, he said.
"The point I tried to make is this is an economic imperative," he said.
If Democrats fail, Clinton suggested, Republicans will use it to define the party for years, much as they did in 1994, after his own attempt at health care restructuring failed.
Judith Feder, a former Clinton administration health official, noted Tuesday that "nobody knows better than former President Clinton what the failure of health care cost and what it meant to his agenda.
"It definitely contributed to the loss of Congress in '94," said Feder, who's now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal research center. In 1994 Republicans won control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.
(William Douglas contributed to this article.)
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