Image: Clinton Health Care Overhaul
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
Former President Bill Clinton arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009.
updated 11/10/2009 3:41:06 PM ET 2009-11-10T20:41:06

Former President Bill Clinton told anxious Senate Democrats on Tuesday to pass a health care bill soon because the U.S. economy can't resist the toxic combination of exorbitant medical costs and nearly 50 million uninsured for much longer.

"My argument was that this is an economic imperative," Clinton said after the closed-door meeting.

Addressing Democrats' insecurities about the complex legislation, Clinton said he told the senators "there is no perfect bill — you'll always have unintended consequences. There will be amendments to this next year. But the worst thing to do is nothing."

Clinton was the last Democratic president to attempt to revamp the health care system to cover all Americans and try to control costs. The spectacular collapse of his plan probably cost Democrats control of Congress in 1994, but Clinton is still admired for having tackled the issue. He went on to win a second term in office.

"People trust him," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., one of the architects of the current Senate health care bill.

"His argument was that getting the best bill is not only good for the people, it's the best politics," said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., one of a clutch of moderates who hold the fate of the legislation in their hands.

Video: Is the GOP tearing itself apart? Clinton said he hoped all the senators understood his bottom line: "It's not important to be perfect here," he said. "It's important to act, to move, to start the ball rolling."

The House passed its health care bill last Saturday by a narrow 220-215 vote. In Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is working on a final Democratic draft. But the combination of divided Democrats, and Republicans determined to force delays under the Senate's arcane rules, is making it less likely that President Barack Obama will get a bill this year.

"Our goal is to make sure it's out of the Senate this year," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the No. 2 Senate Democrat. The Senate bill would then have to be combined with legislation passed Saturday by the House, and the final version passed by both chambers before it could go to Obama's desk. Finishing that whole process before year's end would be tough.

"They want us to finish quickly. We do too. But some of these things are beyond our control," Durbin said of the White House's desire for fast action.

Complicating the effort, abortion opponents in the Senate are seeking tough restrictions in the health care overhaul bill, a move that could roil the shaky Democratic effort.

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Nelson, the Nebraska moderate, said he could not support a bill unless it clearly prohibits federal money from going to pay for abortions. He is weighing options, including offering an amendment similar to the one passed by the House this weekend, which had more stringent language than that approved by Senate committees.

Video: Nelson: ‘Strong opinions’

"While there may be different views about abortion, I think there's a strong majority against using federal dollars to fund abortions," Nelson said Tuesday on NBC's "Today."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is personally opposed to abortion, said the issue was being negotiated.

"I expect the bill that will be brought to the floor will ensure that no federal funds are used for abortions and that the conscience rights for providers and health care facilities like Catholic hospitals are protected," Reid said Tuesday. "I think we can work that out."

The House-passed restrictions were the price Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had to pay to get a health care bill passed. But it's prompted an angry backlash from liberals at the core of her party, and some are now threatening to vote against a final bill if the curbs stay in.

Obama said the legislation needs to find a balance.

"I want to make sure that the provision that emerges meets that test — that we are not in some way sneaking in funding for abortions, but, on the other hand, that we're not restricting women's insurance choices," Obama said in an interview with ABC News.

The House bill would bar a new government insurance plan from covering abortions, except in cases or rape, incest or the life of the mother being in danger. That's the basic rule currently in federal law, under a provision called the Hyde amendment, which Reid said Tuesday had worked well.

"The one thing we're certain to do is to maintain what we've had in the past," said Reid, D-Nev. "The Hyde amendment has been a pretty good way to go."

The House bill would also prohibit health plans that receive federal subsidies in a new insurance marketplace from offering abortion coverage. Insurers, however, could sell separate coverage for abortion, which individuals would have to purchase entirely with their own money. The committee-passed Senate versions differ on abortion, but none would go as far as the restrictive amendment passed by the House.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Abortion amendment receives backlash

  1. Closed captioning of: Abortion amendment receives backlash

    >> thank you.

    >>> exactly how did that anti-abortion amendment make it into the final house bill? james clyborn joins us now. thanks so good. good to see you. you're in south carolina , of course, your home state. let's talk about how this happened. i want to show you our conversation from last week. so are you talk in particular about the abortion issue?

    >> that's a significant part of it. trying to get that worked out.

    >> is there a risk that you satisfy the conservatives or the moderates on that abortion issue you will lose some of your liberal support?

    >> i don't think so. i think you can do that, but i don't think we will do that.

    >> then and now. congressman, what happened?

    >> yes. well, as i said back then, we could but i didn't think we will. i do believe that the emotions surrounding getting the bill passed were so strong that many of the more progressives in our progress decided to gamble on going along with this amendment in hopes that once we get to conference that the conferees will proceed to the senate version. so, i think that's what is going to happen. that's certainly why i agreed to go along with it.

    >> but what happens if it doesn't get stripped out in conference if it's still in there? two options. one is that it gets stripped out and that then you lose the 40 votes that you had for final passage this time or that it, it stays in there and you lose liberals. are you counting oon the fact that you'll be able to persuade liberals and progressives to go along with this and a lot of the women who stormed out and those are some of your closest allies.

    >> absolutely. look, we're talking about language here. remember, we had three or four different versions of the language that went on back and forth. i think we'll have the same problem in conference . all we want to do is to make sure that we maintain the status quo that when it comes to this issue of aborshz. i think all of us have agreed for years now to the hyde amendment and so long as we can be convinced that this does not go beyond the hyde amendment , i think we are going to be fine.

    >> but it does go beyond the hyde amendment .

    >> congressman, takes a look at the "new york times" editorial. a lot of missed statements on this by journalists, as well as others. if you look at the "new york times" editorial today. the restricks are a sharp departure from current practice and infringement of a women's right to get a legal medical procedure . the restricted language allow people to buy riders that would cover abortions. but nobody plans to have an unplanned pregnancy, so that concession is meaningless. people will not use their own money if they are part of these public exchanges. the insurers will no longer have it as an option.

    >> absolutely agree with you. that's not what i'm saying. i'm saying when we finish with the conference , we will have house and senate conferees around the table working on this language. i agree that the language approved by the house is unacceptable. because we were doing what we were necessary to do to put the bill on the floor in about 12 hours. now, when we come out of the conference , i am hopeful that the conferees will accept the language of the senate as it relates to boston. i hope they will accept the language of the house as it relates to the public option. so, these are the kind of things that you do at conference and those are my votes.

    >> those are your hopes. but now this language is in the house bill. so, the house conferees, i guess it depends on who is chosen to be the house conferees. that's the next kind of secret issue here. but they're armed with this and those 40 votes who went for it only because it was in there are going to say when the final vote comes up, if it's not in there, they could take a walk. just remember you kept using the number 40 and 41. it is not 40 votes we were trying to get with this amendment, only 10 or 20 votes. we were sitting at 207, 208 and we needed to get to 218 and we were there without this language. this language took us across the threshold of 218 and that was only about ten feet. it was never 40 or 41 people as was first reported.

    >> but you couldn't have passed it without this language?

    >> i don't think so. i really don't think so. you can't pass it with 214 votes. you have to get to 218. without that language, we were at around 212, 214. with the language we got to 218, 219. that's a fact. we aren't denying that. but, we are looking at the totality of this bill and i would hope that people look at what else is happening for women in this bill. we are getting them rid of all these discriminations that women have suffered because of pre-existing conditions and because of rescissions and because of being charged unequal premiums. a lot of reforms in this bill that we ought to be talking about and this whole issue, one issue of abortion ought not be the focal point of this bill. this is not an abortion bill. this is health care reform for everybody. young and old --

    >> but it's become an abortion bill for a lot of people. it has become an abortion bill. if the language is still in there will you tell congresswoman degette go along with this because this is health reform for everyone and it's worth it even though it has these new restricks?

    >> those are three women that i have a lot of admiration and respect for. no, i won't. i have three daughters that i have a lot of admiration and respect for. they feel the same way as the three colleagues as mine. i'll work as hard as i possibly can, i don't know if i'll be on the conference . but if i am, i will work on language that is not beyond the current status quo as it relates to the hyde amendment and the yil issue of abortion.

    >> "the new york times" raises the stery today as to whether or not this will result in cost savings, which is the fundamental hope that the current bill as it came out of the house does not chainge the fee for service system . it really will not bend that curve. do you believe that in the short term or long term that it will?

    >> well, you know, so much about this bill, as with other ledge sleigh, we rely on what cbo says. cbo looked at our bill and said that $1.2 trillion will result in enough things happening on the reform side so that the net cause of this bill will be $894 billion and we will realize $104 billion decrease in the deficit. so, if you look at that much deficit reduction, you have to believe what cbo says.

    >> you got to believe. jim clyborn, great to see you. thanks so much. thanks for bringing us up to speed

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