Bill Clinton tells Senate Democrats to learn lessons from ’94

Former President Bill Clinton on Tuesday made a rare appearance on Capitol Hill, urging Senate Democrats to learn from his mistakes and pass healthcare reform.

Fifteen years after his failed effort to overhaul the nation’s healthcare system, Clinton spent more than an hour with his wife’s former colleagues at the weekly conference lunch.

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Clinton’s appearance triggered a frenzy outside the second-floor Mansfield Room as reporters, photographers and Secret Service agents jockeyed for position.

Emerging from the meeting, Clinton told reporters he urged Democrats to compromise when necessary, but to move a bill quickly.

“My argument was: This is an economic issue,” Clinton said. “The second thing is that on the policy, there is no perfect bill because there’s always going to be consequences. So there will be amendments to this effort, whatever they pass ….It’s not important to be perfect, but it’s important to move, to get the ball rolling.”

It was Clinton’s first public appearance at the Capitol since President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) invited Clinton to appear at the lunch while White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel helped coordinate the visit, according to a senior aide.

Clinton’s call for unity was rich with symbolism in the wake of his wife’s bitter battle with Obama for the 2008 Democratic nomination. Hillary Clinton, who is now Obama’s secretary of State, played a leading role in the 1993-94 debate, and her top issue on the 2008 campaign trail was healthcare reform.

In his closed-door discussion with Democrats, Clinton didn’t hold back, firing a shot at conservatives who are rallying against the Democratic move for healthcare reform.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) reportedly said the 42nd president told the conference that the reason that the tea-party movement is so loud is because it is upset that Democrats are getting closer to enacting healthcare reform.

In essence, Clinton’s political message to Senate Democrats was: Failing to pass healthcare reform will endanger Democratic majorities in Congress.

“The worst thing we can do is nothing,” Clinton said on Tuesday.

After Clinton’s healthcare plan crashed and burned, Republicans took control of the House and Senate in the 1994 elections. While Clinton was able to recover and secure a second term, his window of opportunity for passing comprehensive healthcare reform had been slammed shut.

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Democrats said Clinton was frank about his missteps during the 1993 healthcare debate, telling them he regretted not adequately explaining to the public the impact of Senate filibusters and the need for reform.

Clinton called on Democrats to be ready to compromise, something his administration was criticized for not doing in 1993 and 1994. By contrast, Obama has been flexible — some critics say too flexible — on the ingredients of the bill he hopes to sign into law.

While the president and his aides are pushing hard for a bill to be signed into law in 2009, many on Capitol Hill believe the new goal is for the Senate to pass a bill by Christmas and negotiations with the House to spill into early next year.

Following the House’s passage of its health bill last weekend, the Senate is poised to take up its companion bill as soon as next week.

Democratic leaders are expecting a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis to be finished within days though Reid on Tuesday did not rule out the possibility of starting the floor debate before the CBO score is finalized. But with 60 votes needed to start debate on the healthcare bill, that move appears unlikely because several centrist senators are concerned about the cost of Reid’s yet-to-be-introduced bill.

Reid’s office on Monday said the majority leader may file a motion to proceed to the healthcare bill on Wednesday. Such a procedural motion would serve as a first, critical unity test for the 60 senators who caucus as Democrats. It is hard to envision 60 “yes” votes on the motion unless the CBO has a final score on the bill.

Clinton, sporting a purple tie at the weekly lunch, avoided specifics such as endorsing a public option plan or taking a stand on the controversial abortion-related amendment that passed the House. But he did call on Democrats to educate members of the public who are employed about how their wages would be affected by the lack of reform.

Clinton also told Democrats they could benefit from one key difference between 1993 and 2009, senators said: Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) wants a bill a lot more than former Chairman Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) did.

Clinton’s healthcare bill never made it to the Senate floor.