Bill Clinton to Senators: Health Reform "Imperative"

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Former President Bill Clinton addressed Democrats in the Senate at their weekly caucus meeting today to tell them they must pass health care legislation as soon as possible to salvage the economy.

After the meeting, Mr. Clinton said he told the legislators that health care reform is "an economic imperative," reports CBS News Capitol Hill Producer John Nolen.

"We're in an economic crisis, we're trying to bring America back," Mr. Clinton said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is waiting to get a cost estimate for his health care bill from the Congressional Budget Office before publicly unveiling it. He may bring the bill to the floor as early as next week. While the Senate has yet to even see the bill it will debate, Democrats are already concerned the debate will be held up by issues like the inclusion of a government-run plan, or "public option," as well as abortion language in the bill.

"It's not important to be perfect here, it's important to act, to move, to start the ball rolling, to claim the evident advantages that all these plans agree with," Mr. Clinton said today. "Simply the worst thing to do is nothing. The worst thing to do is keep dragging around a 16.5 percent GDP health care system that doesn't cover everyone."

The complex nature of the legislation means that it will be continuously amended in years to come, he said.

"There is no perfect bill because there are always unintended consequences," Mr. Clinton added.

Few could be as acutely aware as the former president of the fallout Democrats could face if they fail to pass their health care overhaul. His failed attempt at reform contributed to the Republican takeover of the House and Senate in 1994.

"His number one message is you have to succeed," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said after the meeting, Nolen reports. "You cannot fail in this effort, and I think the membership was inspired by it."

Schumer added there is "real optimism we can get it done this year."

Passing a health care bill before Christmas is perceived as critical for the Senate, but it could be hard to accomplish. Read more in our Health Care Progress Report.

Reid is prepared to push hard to pass the bill by his deadline, however. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told his conference to be prepared for six-day work weeks in December, Politico reports.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Mr. Clinton "made clear that this is the once in the lifetime opportunity," CBS News' Nolen reports.

While Democrats with moderate and conservative constituencies have been hesitant to embrace the health care overhaul, Mr. Clinton told the lawmakers that a vote in favor of the bill would ultimately help them, Feinstein said. Mr. Clinton told them, Feinstein said, that "you are going to do it, and then people are going to begin to see that none of the bad things [people] are talking about will come to pass."

Added Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), "I think he made a good point about good governance is the best politics."

Feinstein added the issue of abortion did not specifically come up during the meeting.