WASHINGTON – Former president Bill Clinton paid a rare visit to the US Senate Tuesday to unite Democrats who are divided on President Barack Obama's push for a sweeping overhaul of US health care.
Fifteen years after his own dramatic push to remake the US system collapsed after a strong start, Clinton addressed Democrats behind closed doors at their weekly policy luncheon to give Obama's plans a shot in the arm.
The former president declined to preview his message as he arrived for the meeting, telling reporters to quiz senators afterwards.
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Democratic Senator Ben Cardin said before the meeting that Clinton was "going to help energize our caucus" as it wrestles with bringing health care costs down and covering every American without breaking the federal budget.
The US House of Representatives on Saturday narrowly approved its version of the legislation, which the Senate could take up next week amid Democratic doubts and near-united Republican opposition that cloud the plan's fate.
"We have to let people know that this is really essential that we do it now, and I think that President Clinton coming up here -- no one can express this better than he can," said Democratic Senator Ted Kaufman.
"I mean this is so traumatic and so tough, that if we don't pass something, I don't know when we can get it," said Kaufman, who pointed to Democratic control of the White House and the US Congress.
The visit could also underscore the political peril Democrats may face: Republicans energized by wrecking Clinton's health care push went on to a landslide victory in the 1994 mid-term elections.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel came up with the idea of having the savvy two-term Democratic president address Senate Democrats, according to a Democratic Senate aide.
The visit was "something that Senator Reid and Rahm thought of," said the aide, who requested anonymity.
Clinton's appearance came as Reid and Emanuel worked to rally the 60 votes needed in the Senate to overcome any parliamentary delaying tactics and pass the legislation, which Obama has said he wants to sign this year.
A handful of swing-vote Democrats, as well as Independent Senator Joe Lieberman, have signaled strong opposition to a White House-championed approach that includes the creation of a government-backed health insurance plan to compete with private insurers.
Asked whether Clinton might change his mind, one of the skeptics, Democratic Senator Ben Nelson, replied: "I'm not sure what he would say that would do that" but "never say never."
The Senate plan also omits vastly stricter curbs on governments funds helping to pay for abortions, a last-minute addition to the House bill that won critical support from a platoon of pro-life Democrats.
If, as expected, the Senate and House of Representatives approve rival versions of the legislation, they would have to forge a compromise bill and approve it in order to send it to Obama to sign into law.
Cardin, who was in the House of Representatives when Clinton's health care overhaul fell apart in 1994, said the US health care picture had grown much worse than forecast during that hard-fought political debate.
"We were wrong in 1993, the cost increases were much larger than we thought they could be. We've actually found that we're in worse shape than the projections showed us," he told reporters.
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