WASHINGTON - Former President Bill Clinton visited the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday to urge Senate Democrats to quickly pass a broad healthcare overhaul, but a party leader said final action could spill into next year.
With the clock ticking on President Barack Obama's hopes of signing a healthcare bill by the end of the year, Clinton told Democratic senators it was economically imperative that they pass the long-delayed measure.
People hire us to come to work in places like this to solve problems, to stand up and do it, Clinton, who failed in his own 1994 effort to revamp the healthcare system, said he told senators in the closed-door session.
I just urged them to resolve their differences and pass a bill, he told reporters.
The overhaul has been stalled in the Senate for a month, but gained new urgency on Saturday when the House of Representatives passed a bill designed to extend coverage to most Americans and bar practices such as denying insurance to those with pre-existing conditions.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and his No. 2, Dick Durbin, said they hoped to bring the Senate's version to the floor next week and have the first procedural vote on whether to open debate.
But Durbin said it would be difficult to meet Obama's goal of signing a bill on reforming the $2.5 trillion healthcare system by the end of the year.
I hope so, but just count the days, Durbin told reporters when asked if they could meet Obama's deadline. Our goal is to make sure it is out of the Senate this year.
That would mean negotiations to reconcile the House and Senate versions would occur in January, and each chamber would have to pass the merged bill before Obama could sign it into law.
I wish we could complete it this year. But if we don't, we will get it done, Durbin said.
The overhaul would lead to the biggest changes in the healthcare system -- which accounts for one-sixth of the U.S. economy -- since the 1965 creation of the Medicare government health insurance program for the elderly.
Many of its biggest provisions, however, would not kick in until 2013, pushing its full implementation beyond Obama's expected re-election campaign in 2012.
CLINTON ENCOURAGES DEMOCRATS
Clinton said he told the senators there was no perfect bill and the worst thing to do is nothing.
There is no perfect solution because it is a big open organic system that will have to be changed repeatedly over the next four or five years, but it's important to make a beginning, Clinton told reporters
Democratic senators said Clinton emphasized the economic importance of revamping the healthcare system and the need to do it quickly.
He focused on is how important it is to move this year, Senator Ron Wyden told reporters. Getting it done this year will in effect clear the tables and allow the focus to be on jobs and infrastructure and education.
Reid has been waiting for weeks for cost estimates on the Senate's version of the bill and searching for an approach that can win the 60 votes needed to overcome Republican procedural hurdles.
Democrats have no margin for error -- they control exactly 60 seats in the 100-member Senate -- and some moderate Democrats have rebelled at Reid's plan to include a new government-run public insurance program in the bill.
Obama and Democratic advocates have pushed for quick passage to prevent the healthcare issue from becoming entangled in the 2010 congressional elections, when all House members and one-third of the 100 senators face re-election.
Republican opponents hope dragging out the process will allow more time for public opposition to mount, as it did in August when lawmakers went home for a one-month recess and faced sometimes fierce criticism from voters.
Senate Republicans renewed their call for a lengthy debate that would allow them to fully explore the ramifications of the bill and offer many amendments to change it.
There are going to be a lot of amendments on a lot of subjects, said Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell.
The Senate action has been complicated by the House's adoption of a provision tightening restrictions on the use of federal funds for abortion, a move that has angered Democrats who support abortion rights.
Reid voiced confidence the Senate would be able to find a compromise to avoid a confrontation on the abortion issue.
I do believe we can work that out, Reid told reporters. We need to work this out and we will.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro, Andy Sullivan and Richard Cowan; Editing by Arshad Mohammed and Chris Wilson)