Bill Clinton tells Senate Dems to get to work

"The worst thing is to do nothing," the former president tells Senate Democrats as they mull healthcare reform

Published November 10, 2009 11:11PM (EST)

Bill Clinton had a pretty simple message for Senate Democrats on Tuesday: don't screw this healthcare stuff up.

"The worst thing to do is nothing," Clinton said he told the party's weekly lunch meeting. "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. And whatever they can get the votes for, I'm going to support."

That kind of bluntness was probably what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, was going for when he asked the former president a few days ago to speak to the lunch. Democrats are struggling to hold their members in line so they have the 60 votes needed to block likely GOP attempts to filibuster the legislation. The healthcare bill the House passed Saturday night didn't entirely set conservative Senate Democrats' minds at ease. So Clinton came in to tell the caucus they had to act, even if they didn't love whatever the legislative process produced. And they have to act fast, he said -- by next year, President Obama will have to focus more on the economy to help it recover, and it'll be too late for healthcare.

Clinton, obviously, was the last Democratic president to try to fix the country's healthcare system. Senators said he didn't spend much time dwelling on how the process did or didn't work in 1993 and 1994, but he did remind them that opportunities for reform don't come up that often.

Democrats are still grappling with questions about what kind of public option the Senate's healthcare bill should have, how to handle the abortion restrictions the House put into its bill and how to pay for some of the costs of the legislation. But Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., told Salon Clinton didn't get into any of that, preferring to focus on the big picture. Though Clinton took a few questions from senators after speaking, none of them dealt with healthcare, Cardin said.

The former president's Secret Service detail, and the Capitol Police, blocked off several hallways as Clinton left the lunch, but that didn't stop a large crowd from gathering on the second floor, hoping to get a glimpse of, or catch a few words from, him. Clinton obliged, staying for about 10 minutes to take questions from reporters and generally bask in the attention before aides shuttled him out of the building.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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Benjamin L. Cardin D-md. Bill Clinton Democratic Party Healthcare Reform U.s. Senate