WASHINGTON — With Senate leaders navigating a tricky path to move healthcare legislation forward, Democrats on Tuesday received a blunt warning from the president who tried in vain to provide universal coverage 15 years ago -- and who suffered the political consequences of failure.
"The worst thing to do is nothing," said former President Clinton, whose unsuccessful healthcare plan contributed to his party losing control of Congress in 1994. "It's not important to be perfect here. It's important to act."
In a closed-door meeting, Clinton urged Senate Democrats to put aside their differences and pass healthcare legislation, just as the lawmakers were preparing to battle over the bill's cost, its abortion policy and the impact it could have on families struggling to buy insurance.
The former president's visit came just a week before party leaders hope to begin Senate floor debate on the sweeping healthcare overhaul. On Saturday, the House approved its version of legislation aimed at providing insurance to those who don't have it, as well as extending more consumer protections and controlling costs for all.
But there was rising concern that the goal of enacting an overhaul before the end of the year was slipping out of reach -- and delay would be risky at a time when voters increasingly seem more concerned about getting and keeping jobs than in remaking the insurance system.
"The clock is ticking," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) after hearing from Clinton. "Getting it done this year will in effect clear the table for President Obama to focus on jobs."
The obstacles to quick action in the Senate loomed large as it became clear that the House bill displeased both liberal and conservative Democrats. Senate Democrats from conservative states, such as Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, oppose the bill's new government-run health insurance program. And many abortion-rights advocates, such as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), are vehemently opposed to a House provision that imposes new restrictions on some women's access to insurance coverage for abortion.
Moving the bill through the Senate will be even more laborious than the process in the House, where party leaders have far more leverage over individual members. In the Senate, the party leadership has to win votes from 60 of the 100 members -- enough to circumvent a threatened GOP filibuster -- and has so little room to maneuver that every Democratic senator can wield tremendous influence.
The importance of each individual was dramatized Tuesday when Clinton arrived in the Capitol. He and his entourage waltzed in practically unheeded by a pack of reporters hanging on every word from Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who is on the fence about the healthcare bill.
Clinton's comments to Democrats drew on his 1993-94 battle for healthcare changes -- which was followed by big losses for his party in the midterm congressional election.
Both Clinton and the Obama White House argue that the experience offers a clear lesson for Democrats today: The party as a whole would suffer more if Congress failed to enact any legislation than it would from backlash over any particular provision.
"There are going to be things in here you don't like, but it's important to get the job done," Clinton told Democrats, according to Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.).
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is hoping to bring a bill to the floor next week but has not yet unveiled the legislation that will be the starting point of debate. He is awaiting reports from the Congressional Budget Office on various options being considered at the recommendation of the finance committee and the more liberal health committee.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has considerable delaying tactics at his disposal, on Tuesday suggested that he expected the debate to last more than a month -- as did recent debates on bills affecting agriculture and education.
"This is a big bill," McConnell said. "There are going to be a lot of amendments on a lot of subjects. We're going to spend a number of weeks on this, reminiscent of important Senate debates in the recent past."