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Clinton Tells Broder
What She's Learned

In her autobiography, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote of her failed attempt to pass health care reform legislation in 1993-94: "Our most critical mistake was trying to do too much too fast."

Yesterday, as the New York senator and leading Democratic presidential candidate launched another such effort, she said in an interview that she had learned much from her earlier failure that would impove the chances of success this time.

"If you like what you have" in health insurance, "you can keep it" under her new plan, Clinton said, "but you will also have choices that you don't have now. There will be no new government bureaucracy, no mandatory purchasing alliances, and no mandates on small business to provide insurance."

Those were all contentious sticking points in the 1993 proposal, which died in Congress without ever coming to a vote--the victim of a concerted assault from the insurance industry and its allies in business and the Republican Party.

Clinton has shaped the new proposal to avoid some of those traps. But, as in her earlier efffort, she is aiming to move it quickly onto the agenda if she becomes president. "It is my highest domestic priority," she said. "I will start consulting immediatley on its details, so when I reach the White House, we will have a running start." Were she to win, it would be on her first year "to do" list for Congress.

The scheme, though simpler in design than the 1993 model, would still be offered as a comprehensive plan to insure every American. But Clinton said that after the battering experienceed by the 1993 bill, which was 1342 pages long, she would content herself with offering a blueprint and ask Congress to fill in the specifications.

This was one example, she said, of her "better understanding of the relationship between the president and Congress" than she had 15 years ago. "Having worked on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue now," she said, "I think I have a better chance of being successful with this legislation."

In her memoir, "Living History," Clinton said that she and her husband, President Bill Clinton, "could never convince the vast majority of Americans who have health insurance that they wouldn't have to give up benefits and medical choices to help the minority of Americans without coverage."

That challenge remains, as the 48 million Americans estimated to be without health insurance now are vastly outnumbered by those with insurance.

But Clinton said she thinks "there is a much broader consenss on the need for reform now," as health care costs have outstripped inflation and the growth of income in the past 15 years. "You see businesses and labor together on this, Republican and Democratic governors, and the fact that we are in a global market, where our health care costs are a competitive disadvantage--all of that is different."

Cliinton said the guarantee that people can keep their current insurance, if they wish, should ease fears of change that were exploited in the "Harry and Louise" television ads that helped sink her earlier plan. In this new proposal, people would have the option of buying into the Federak Employees Health Care System, which offers 100 different private plans, if they lack coverage or are dissatisfied with their curret plan.

The government would subsidize premiums for some people with modest incomes, by limiting their costs to a certain percentage of their income.

Clinton said she was aware that she would have to find a way to limit that option, lest the cost become prohibitive. But she has a tool kit of cost savings that are part of the plan.

Nonetheless, the overalll cost--$110 billion a year==is intimidating, and more than half of that would be raised by rolling back part of President Bush's tax cut. In addition, Clinton is proposing a new limit on the tax deductibility of employer-financed health benefits for people making more than $250,000 a year.

The new proposal--like the failed 1993 plan--is certain to invite controversy. But Clinton said, "I am optimistic and excited" about its prospects.
-David Broder
Broder was the co-author, with Haynes Johnson, of the 1997 book,
"The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point,:
an account of the 1993 health care battle.

By Bill Hamilton  |  September 17, 2007; 6:25 PM ET
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