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Clinton sought Republican support for health care

April 19, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Bill Clinton’s advisers estimated early in his term that his health care reform law would require a delicate balance of Democratic and Republican support, according to documents that contrast Clinton’s doomed effort with President Barack Obama’s successful passage of his own overhaul.

The documents, released from the Clinton White House on Friday, show how the former president’s team tried to build support for the ill-fated legislation, led by former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, in setting up a schedule to achieve passage before the 1994 midterm congressional elections. The bill died in a House of Representatives committee and Democrats were routed in the elections, losing control of both chambers of Congress.

Obama’s health care overhaul, known as Obamacare, is expected to be a major issue in November’s midterm elections. Republicans have repeatedly tried to repeal it and assailed the White House for approving the 2010 legislation with only Democrats voting for it.

The documents were among about 7,500 pages of records released through the Clinton Presidential Library in Arkansas on Friday. The records are being closely scrutinized as Hillary Clinton, Obama’s former secretary of state, considers a second presidential campaign in 2016.

The Clinton administration discussed needing at least eight moderate Republicans in the Senate and 15 or more in the House to win approval of their health care reform, according to the documents.

A strategy memo from 1993 argued the plan would require support from enough conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans without alienating too many liberal Democrats. But the bill never even made it to a vote in the full House.

Preparing for an August 1994 news conference, Clinton discussed the teetering health care overhaul at length. “A lot of them want to know they can keep their own plan if they like it,” the president told his aides. That point would be heard again, years later.

At the start of the enrollment period for the Obamacare plan, the government website for new signups was riddled with crippling technical problems. A spate of private policy cancellations forced Obama to recant his pledge that all Americans who liked their health insurance plans could simply keep them.

In 1993, Clinton’s team aimed to put together a diverse coalition in Congress to overhaul health care.

“The winning congressional majority for health care reform depends on holding almost all liberal and moderate Democrats, winning a significant number of conservative Democrats and attracting 8-10 moderate Republicans in the Senate (assuming we need 60 votes) and 15-20 in the House,” the memo said.

After Republicans swept to victory in the 1994 elections, in part because of the failed health care overhaul, the mood at the White House was sour. “We got slaughtered,” wrote communications aide David Dreyer in November 1994. “Event of historic proportions. Worse bloodbath since 1922 in the Harding administration, but even he didn’t lose control of both chambers.”

Obama also had a blunt reaction after Republicans won control of the House in the 2010 elections, in part because of fallout from passage of the new health care law. He described the defeat as “a shellacking.”

The documents may also offer a glimpse into the future as former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who led her husband’s health care task force, considers another presidential campaign in 2016.

One undated memo written after the 1994 elections offers advice on how Mrs. Clinton could soften her image. An unnamed aide told the first lady, “It’s no surprise that some Americans can’t handle smart, tough, independent women,” and encouraged Clinton to pick issues and events accentuating her personal side, not wonky interests, and recommended she do more listening.

As Clinton planned to attend the 1995 U.N. women’s conference in Beijing, the aide wrote, “It is crucial that we dispel notions (sure to be perpetuated by the Religious Right) that you are part of some feminist cabal meeting in China to plot a takeover of the world.” The conference was where Clinton famously declared that “women’s rights are human rights.”

Other Clinton era records depict internal White House tensions between Clinton and Vice President Al Gore in the years before Gore ran for the presidency himself.

In a 1997 memo, Ron Klain, Gore’s chief of staff, urged a White House presidential speechwriter to include a passage about a victim of an ex-Army soldier’s bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City in 1995, which killed 168 people in the worst act of homegrown terrorism in U.S. history. The victim had been forced out of his office during a 1996 government shutdown. Gore had promoted the reference.

“I am trying to knock down the idea that the Clinton White House’s support for Gore is based on legacy notions and build up the idea that it is based on respect, relationships and in-the-foxhole camaraderie,” Klain wrote. He added: “This anecdote rebuts the charge that Gore lacks a Clinton-type feel for political rhetoric.”

Adding that Gore had been tireless in promoting environment, science and technology issues, Klain added: “Gore was Mr. Faithful in pushing these concerns.”

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Associated Press writers Alicia A. Caldwell, Philip Elliott, Charles Babington, Alan Fram, Bradley Klapper, Eileen Sullivan, Erica Werner, Stephen Braun, Stephen Ohlemacher, Jack Gillum and Richard Lardner contributed to this report.

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