Clinton, who himself unsuccessfully sought to overhaul the nation's health care system 15 years ago, met today with Senate Democrats during their weekly caucus meeting and urged them to come to a compromise on health care legislation.
"This is an economic imperative," Clinton told reporters after the closed-door meeting.
Clinton's discussion with lawmakers was wide-ranging but boiled down to a couple of key points, according to lawmakers who attended the meeting. He said the opposition is so loud because Democrats are so close to victory.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said Clinton attempted to settle Democrats' fears about the boisterous opponents of health care legislation who made themselves known at town hall meetings in August and at a large weekday rally attended by 5,000 or so demonstrators and Republican Congress members at the Capitol last week.
"The reason the teabaggers are so inflamed is because we are close on health care," said Whitehouse, paraphrasing Clinton's argument.
"The worst thing we can do is nothing," Clinton told reporters after the meeting. "On the policy, there is no perfect bill."
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said Clinton exhorted senators of the "critical importance that individual senators refrain from laying down markers."
The former president mentioned his own attempt in 1993 and 1994 to overhaul health care policy and said that if Democrats can pass a bill, they will be the ones defining whether it is a success. But if they fail to pass anything, Republicans will get to define the failure.
The former president was asked to give a pep talk by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has been relatively mum on the contents of the Senate bill.
"It's always great to have President Clinton with you," Cardin said today on ABC News' "Top Line." "I think he can add a lot of discussion to the Democrats sticking on target, getting health care reform done but doing it in a fiscally responsible way."
The House passed its version of health care legislation with a narrow 220-215 vote late Saturday. Only one Republican, Anh Joseph Cao of Louisiana, voted with the Democrats.
One of the reasons 39 Democrats opposed the bill is because of new language implementing a firmer stance on abortion.
The new proposal would not only cut federal funding for abortion-related activities, it would also limit access to abortions for people who would receive federal subsidies and would have to buy insurance through a health insurance exchange.
Democrats are deeply divided over the proposal crafted by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich. Liberal Democrats have warned Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that they will not vote for the final bill if it contains that measure.
But Reid, for instance, is a Democrat who has supported restrictions on abortion rights. And another Democrat, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, said today he would support a similar measure in the Senate bill.
But Reid said today he would work with "pro choice and pro life folks" on that matter, too, and was "confident we can get something done."
Reid said he "expects the bill that comes to the floor will insure that no federal funds will be used in abortions."
But how he achieves that remains to be seen. The Senate Finance Committee stipulated that federal funds could not be used for abortions but that insurance plans for people who receive federal subsidies could cover abortion as long as they were paid for with premiums from patients and not federal subsidies.
Conservative Democrats in the House, with the help of Republicans, were able to dismiss such a "firewall" approach for an all-out ban on abortion coverage for any plan that receives subsidies.
"I laid out a very simple principle, which is this is a health care bill, not an abortion bill," Obama said. "And we're not looking to change what is the principle that has been in place for a very long time, which is federal dollars are not used to subsidize abortions."
Obama said he was confident that the final legislation will ensure that "neither side feels that it's being betrayed.
"I want to make sure that the provision that emerges meets that test; that we are not in some way sneaking in funding for abortions, but, on the other hand, that we're not restricting women's insurance choices," he said.
Public Option Remains Obstacle in Health Care Overhaul
Abortion is only one of the internal disputes that have snarled Democrats over health reform. Another issue that could threaten Democrats' ability to pass a health care bill through the Senate is public option, a government-run insurance plan that would compete with the private sector.
Reid said he spoke today with Sen. Joe Lieberman, the independent Democrat from Connecticut who has threatened to filibuster a health care bill if it includes a public option, and Reid said he is confident "we can get something done."
Medicare cuts are another thorny issue. Asked whether the Medicare cuts he proposes to help pay for health care overhaul would be undone by Congress subsequently, as is often the case with deficit and cost-cutting measures, the president told ABC News he will pledge to undo any such measures.
"I actually have said that it is important for us to make sure this thing is deficit neutral, without tricks," he said. "What I also said in that speech to the joint session was that I'm willing to put in some safeguards where if we don't obtain the savings that have been promised, that we've got to make adjustments in terms of the benefits, because the goal here is to reduce costs for families, give them more security, but do so in a way that is not adding to our deficit ... Congress needs to know that when I say this has to be deficit neutral, I mean it."
Despite the difficulty of reaching accord on abortion and the public option, when Reid was asked by reporters if he could get a bill on the Senate floor by next week and pass it out of the Senate by Christmas, he said, "Yes and yes."
Reid was speaking at a new conference in the Capitol Building with veterans groups and fellow Democrats to bring pressure on Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla, who has blocked a bill to authorize new programs for the care of veterans who need in-home care.
Coburn has said he wants new spending in the bill to be accounted for by cuts elsewhere in the budget.
But Democrats said today that funding for veterans was too important to slow down.
Obama said there is still more work to be done before a final health care bill reaches his desk for a signature.
"I think everybody understands that there's going to be work to be done on the Senate side," he said. "It's not going to match up perfectly with the House side."