WASHINGTON -- When Bill Clinton's health care proposal was foundering in the summer of 1994, a group of senators suggested that the administration put off trying to get universal coverage and insist instead on insuring all children. The idea was to make, at least, a down payment on reform.
The White House said no and pressed on with its doomed effort to get a bigger bill. The Republicans won control of Congress in the fall. It wasn't until 1997, thanks to the unlikely duo of Sens. Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, that a children's health care program was finally passed.
One of the clearest signals President-elect Barack Obama has sent is his determination to learn from the Clinton years, and particularly from the former president's failures on health care.
When Tom Daschle, Obama's pick to be secretary of health and human services, returned to the Senate last week for his first round of confirmation hearings, he offered a long list of criticisms that others had directed at the original health care reform effort. This time, he said, would be different.
And this week, the House of Representatives is determined to prove Daschle right. It is scheduled to take up an extension of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), as the Kennedy-Hatch initiative is called, so that 10 million kids can get health insurance. Getting more children covered before Congress starts wrangling over the larger health care bill is good politics, and the right thing to do. Congress needs to act anyway, since the program expires March 31. It might as well act fast, and act generously.
The SCHIP bill is unfinished business from the Bush years, and Democrats have no better way to show, and quickly, how different their approach to government will be from the style and priorities that prevailed during the outgoing president's term.
President Bush twice vetoed an extension of SCHIP. He opposed the additional $35 billion the Democrats wanted to spend to cover more children and also disliked the tobacco tax they proposed using to pay for it. There are many big things people hold against Bush, but this one has always stuck in my craw. If "compassionate conservatism" -- remember that phrase? -- means anything, surely it should mean helping more kids go to the doctor when they need to.
Some advocates of universal coverage have argued that an expansion of SCHIP should be delayed so that the issue of covering kids can be taken up as part of a larger health proposal. The worry is that passing the most popular part of reform now (is there a more sympathetic group to cover than children?) would make it easier to delay the broader effort.
These are good faith concerns, but Congress would be right to ignore them. The economic downturn has made the expansion of SCHIP all the more urgent.
It's not just that sharp increases in unemployment add to the ranks of the uninsured. State governments are hurting, too, and they are responding to revenue shortfalls by shrinking health care programs.
According to Families USA, a group that pushes for fundamental health care reform, states have enacted budget cuts that will leave some 275,000 people without health coverage, including 260,000 children in California. By the end of this year, if further proposed cuts go through, the number losing health coverage nationwide could rise to more than 1 million, almost half of them children. Other states have reduced benefits to those they still insure.
All this makes the case for fiscal relief to the states in a stimulus bill more compelling. It also makes clear that universal health insurance coverage should be an urgent priority. But getting the children's program done in the meantime could create momentum for the larger program and reduce the size of the problem that needs to be solved in a comprehensive bill -- 10 million kids now, the rest later.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has not made any commitments as to when he would take up children's health care, though he has listed it as a priority. It would do the new president and members of the Democrats' expanded congressional majority no harm to move expeditiously on a proposal that is simultaneously bipartisan -- SCHIP has always enjoyed significant Republican support -- and embodies Obama's oft-stated commitment to "programs that work." This one surely does.
How often did Obama promise to "turn the page," implying that his presidency would be very different from George W. Bush's while also taking lessons from Bill Clinton's shortcomings? Winning a quick health care victory for children would prove he's determined to do both.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
By E.J. Dionne, Jr.