Bill Clinton to address healthcare at House Democrats retreat

Former President Bill Clinton will address House Democrats at their annual retreat next week on healthcare, an issue closely identified with his presidency.

Clinton is likely to give the keynote speech on healthcare on Friday, the retreat’s final day, and may take on a more prominent role in discussing the issue at the retreat than even President Barack Obama, according to House leadership aides involved in the planning.

Clinton’s appearance, House aides said, is specifically designed to remind House Democrats of the perils associated with killing healthcare reform — a phenomenon that rocked Clinton’s first term and contributed to Democrats' losing power in both chambers the next year.

ADVERTISEMENT
The choice to have Clinton deliver the keynote healthcare remarks comes at critical time for House Democrats.

Democratic leaders are beginning the process of merging two very different House and Senate healthcare bills, and a number of factors are contributing to a growing belief that the final bill will very closely mirror the legislation the Senate passed on Christmas Eve after month’s worth of painstaking negotiations to produce 60 votes.

The Senate bill would expand health insurance by creating state-based insurance exchanges. House Democrats were able to pass a bill that’s far more in line with the liberal healthcare reform philosophy, including in their legislation a government-run public insurance option to compete with private health insurers.

House and Senate leaders, along with the White House, earlier this week agreed to bypass a formal negotiating conference and have the House take up the Senate bill, likely amend it, and send it back to the Senate for final approval.

On Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) began a two-hour conference call with her caucus by promising her liberal members that she would not allow the House to vote on the same bill that passed the Senate.

Pelosi and other Democratic leaders continue to stress in public that they believe the House bill is superior to the Senate’s. And, according to multiple Democrats, Pelosi specifically referred to the public option as still being on the negotiating table.

For dozens of liberal Democrats, any of a number of issues — the elimination of the public option, too loose of a public insurance exchange, the inclusion of taxes on “Cadillac” insurance plans instead of surtaxes on wealthy individuals, restrictions on abortion coverage and language prohibiting illegal aliens from accessing insurance exchanges — could cost Pelosi votes she had last month.

Most House liberals have backed off blanket threats to vote down a final bill dramatically different than the House bill, but Pelosi’s main challenge is still to successfully fight for enough House priorities without damaging the Senate’s coalition of support.

When Clinton addressed Senate Democrats at a November policy lunch, he urged a then-scattered Democratic caucus to put their policy disagreements aside for the sake of ensuring that a healthcare bill becomes law. He also warned of the risks associated with letting a chance to enact healthcare reform fall through the cracks.

“I do think it's good politics to pass this and pass it as soon as you can, but more importantly it is the right thing for America,” Clinton said he told Senate Democrats at the Nov. 10 lunch. “The worst thing to do is nothing.”

Obama will also address Democrats at their “2010 Issues Conference,” but his remarks will be focused on the economy and jobs, the official theme of this year’s conference, House aides said.