WASHINGTON – President Bill Clinton’s advisers estimated early in his term that passing a health care overhaul would require a delicate balance of Democratic and Republican support, needing at least eight moderate Republicans in the Senate and 15 or more in the House to win approval, according to documents released Friday.
New records released from the Clinton White House show how the 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 elections. Democrats were routed in the election after the overhaul failed. They lost control of both the House and Senate.
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 cleared a House committee.
“The complexity of our bill undermines our chances for success but without complexity, success is impossible,” the unsigned memo said.
The documents were among about 7,500 pages of records released Friday through the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark., covering a wide range of topics including the former first lady’s work on health care, the administration’s promotion of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
The records are being closely scrutinized as former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton considers a second presidential campaign in 2016.
The documents show parallels between the Clinton era and the current White House under President Barack Obama. Obama’s health care overhaul is expected to be a major deciding point in the 2014 midterm elections and Republicans have assailed the White House for approving the 2010 legislation without a single GOP vote.
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 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.
It identified several lawmakers as “swing voters,” including former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, who was the GOP presidential nominee against Clinton in 1996, and several current House members, including Reps. Fred Upton, R-Mich., Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Frank Pallone, D-N.J.
Other policy issues occupied Clinton’s team. Preparing to roll out North American free trade in 1993, U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor wrote a memo to Clinton urging him to recruit newly retired Chrysler executive Lee Iacocca to take an active role in selling the trade pact to Americans.
“Iacocca resigned today from the Chrysler Board and is available,” Kantor wrote. “As you know, we need a non-administration spokesperson who is telegenic, visible and articulate” to counter opponents of the deal, such as Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan. Iacocca agreed to help Clinton and appeared in a 60-second television ad promoting the deal.
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.”
Dreyer said that to gird against expected Republican budget cuts, the administration should propose projects that would cause political pain back home for GOP lawmakers trying to cut them.
“Make their lives miserable; they are not going to play fair, why should we?” Dreyer wrote.
Other 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 the Oklahoma City bombing who was kicked out of his office during the 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.”
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.