Interviews with Speaker Pelosi and Leader McConnell

Interviews with Speaker Pelosi and Leader McConnell

By State of the Union - July 26, 2009

KING: Setback is a word heard frequently in conversations about health care reform here in Washington in recent days. Senators are finding it difficult to reach consensus on a plan. And the House this past week was marked by escalating tensions in the Democratic ranks.

Yet Democratic leaders say they're confident major reform legislation will pass and pass this year. One reason, as we zoom in on the Capitol, for that Democratic optimism is the map.

You see the United States Capitol there, well over here on the Senate side, 58 Democrats plus two independents who vote with them most of the time, so 60 here and 40 here, that's one reason for optimism.

Here's even more, over on the House side, 256 Democrats to 178 Republicans, just shy of an 80-seat majority there. But despite those big majorities, there are worries within the Democratic ranks, many in the House, for example, are worried they'll take risky votes only to see the Senate stall.

But the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi , says she won't wait for the Senate, health care dominated our conversation at the Capitol late Friday as the speaker shuttled between meetings with key players in the effort.


KING: Madam Speaker, thank you for spending some time with us.

PELOSI: My pleasure.

KING: I want to begin with the big issue of the day, which is, of course, health care. The Senate says now it will wait until the fall. The president says that's not what I would like, but I'm OK with that. But you want to press forward, why? What's the rush in the House?

PELOSI: It's not a question of rush, it's a question of the American people who have been waiting a very long time for health insurance that gives them confidence that if they have a preexisting condition or if they lose their job or change their job or start a business that they will have health insurance.

KING: But if you had more time, perhaps you could better settle some of the disputes within your own party.

PELOSI: We believe that we have a good bill, this isn't about rushing, we've been talking about this for a very long time and the American people have been waiting a long time. And we have -- we have three committees, two of them have reported out a bill, the Energy and Commerce Committee is the last one to report out a bill.

And they have some differences of opinion, differences of opinion about the public option, which has the overwhelming support of the House Democratic Caucus. A robust, level playing field, public option, and that's one of the sticking points.

KING: But it is the speaker's job sometimes, and you're doing a lot better than I, to referee disputes within the family. Are you worried your family is coming apart on this? And that you might not...

PELOSI: Absolutely not.

KING: ... have the votes on the floor?

PELOSI: Absolutely, positively not. When I...

KING: You have the votes.

PELOSI: ... take this bill to the floor, it will win. But we will move forward. This will happen. Americans, again, with preexisting medical conditions or concern about losing their jobs or changing their jobs or the health care that is available for their children and their families with a big dose of prevention and the rest can take heart and comfort in knowing that this bill will pass.

KING: Do you worry at all when you have these conservative Democrats saying this bill doesn't control costs, I can't support it, I won't vote for it, that this is bad for our party, it's not fiscally responsible? Do you worry that that gives pretty fertile ammunition to your Republican critics?

PELOSI: No. I -- we are all attempting to squeeze as much as possible out of the cost of this legislation. Some of us in the House do not support agreements made with the Senate to, say, limit the cost-savings from the pharmaceutical industry, from the hospital industry, and the rest.

So we think there are more savings that can be gained. But in doing so, we will have a bill that is over 50 percent savings and only half -- less than half will need a revenue source. Maybe not.

As I said, squeeze it all out, keep squeezing until we can't find another drop of savings in the bill. That's something that we are all doing.

KING: You want more money from the pharmaceutical industry, the insurance industry, but do you trust them? They're cutting these deals with the Senate and with the White House. Do you trust them to keep their word and to come up with those savings?

PELOSI: Oh, I think they will come up with those savings because there's much more savings they can come up -- much more savings I think...


KING: So the White House and the Senate is not getting enough?

PELOSI: I don't think so, but let's see how we go forward. But what is important about all of this is that as we have reforms in the bill for the delivery of service and reforms in the bill for health insurance that the costs come down, as well.

This is very important as how we go forward as we make the systemic change. You mentioned the CBO, the Congressional Budget Office here, in their accounting, they don't give any credit for prevention. We know and the president knows that prevention saves hundreds of billions of dollars. And it can be documented, except they don't count it. So we know that as we go forward, the cost of health care will come down, the quality will go up, the choices will expand, and the peace of mind will be established for the American people.

KING: One of the other questions that comes up a lot in my travels, and I've been to high-end facilities like the Cleveland Clinic, I was this week at a public hospital in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that is doing the lord's work, letting people without insurance or very limited coverage come in and get everything from emergency room to cancer treatment.

And those doctors say they share your goals but they're a little worried that in the short-term, the day after you throw this switch, if the bill passes that when you squeeze Medicare and squeeze Medicaid, that you will drive more providers to say, forget about it, the reimbursements are too low, I'm not participating.

PELOSI: Well, in the legislation and in our broader agenda here, we have initiatives to promote more doctors, especially in primary care, but perhaps if they're more familiar with what the bill actually does. And that's why we want to finish this third piece so that we can have a document that people can make judgments about.

But you have to be careful when you're squeezing it down that you're not scraping seniors or affecting care.

KING: But when we spoke a few weeks back, you were adamant that the final bill would include a public option.

PELOSI: Definitely.

KING: You gave an interview this week where you were asked if you could support a bill that didn't have one in the end, and you said, I don't think so. Is that some softening?

PELOSI: No, no, no, no, the president has said he believes the public option is a way to keep the private insurance companies honest. But he said, if you can find another way to do this, show it to me.

KING: So is that non-negotiable? If the Senate passed a bill that did not have a public option or that had a public option that, say, had a three- or five-year trigger, let's see what happens, see if we can make reforms, and if we don't, then a public option would kick in, is that non-negotiable with the speaker?

PELOSI: I think the private insurance industry has had a long enough time to have a trigger. We know what happens left to their own devices. This is about having an alternative, to give much more leverage to the individual.

And the president has said, if you like the insurance that you have, you like your doctor, you can keep them. Well, most people, many people feel good about all of that, but they don't know what's going to happen to the cost.

And the cost, that's an accessibility issue. And we know that a family of four -- average family of four, their health insurance costs will increase by $1,800 a year, that would be $18,000 by 2020. It's just not affordable. And therefore not accessible.

KING: If this bill passes and there's a public option, should that public option cover abortions?

PELOSI: That's not -- that's not the issue. The issue is people go out there to -- we'll be working on that issue. But that's not the issue. The public option doesn't cover -- insurance programs...

KING: But the public option would have a lot of -- the public option would have say on the marketplace about what is covered in certain plans. If...

PELOSI: No, but the insurance companies, as with private, would be treated just the way private insurance is treated now.

KING: So when you have somebody like Bart Stupak who says he wants language like the Hyde Amendment put into any health care reform bill?

PELOSI: Well, I don't know that that -- that Bart's language is exactly that. But those -- we have people who are working together to help promote health insurance for all Americans, that people will be treated the same in a public option as they are in a private option and that this issue should not be an issue, being respectful of Bart Stupak 's concerns and respectful of full reproductive health care for America's women.

KING: What about illegal immigrants, what should happen to them if we have national health care reform? Should they be able...

PELOSI: I'm sorry?

KING: Illegal immigrants.

PELOSI: Illegal immigrants?

KING: If you're in this country illegally, should you be able to get health care?

PELOSI: No, illegal immigrants are not covered by this plan.

KING: And so what happens to a public hospital then if they walk into the emergency room? Again, the hospital I was at this week, they said, you know, they do 6,000 births a year there and 70 percent of them are for undocumented.

PELOSI: I don't know about that. But I do know that the law requires that if somebody comes in off the street and needs care, that it is extended. What we see in this legislation is that people will have access to affordable health care, and it will diminish the number of people going into those private -- public hospitals in the manner in which you described.

(END VIDEOTAPE) KING: Ahead, more with the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi , including her take on whether it might take -- might be time for yet another stimulus plan to help with the country's punishing recession.


KING: More now of our conversation with the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi .


KING: Let me ask you about the politics of this for you. You were here, not in this role, but you were here the last time we had a Democratic president...

PELOSI: Right.

KING: ... and the Democrats in charge of both chambers of Congress, and the president wanted health care reform. It didn't pass, and his party was hammered in the mid-term elections -- not the president, he came out of it just fine, but you lost 52 seats. Do you have any worry that we're heading into a similar situation?

PELOSI: Absolutely not. I remind you, but I don't need to remind you, that the health care bill did not pass at that time. I think the American people want us to perform. They need this. This is urgent. It's urgent in terms of their health, their economic stability -- the economic stability of their families. And they want to see Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and the Democratic president in the White House to show that we can work together to have a positive impact on their lives by removing the instability that the uncertainty of access to health care causes for America's (INAUDIBLE)

KING: When you passed the stimulus bill back earlier this year, the administration said it thought the unemployment rate would average about 8.1 percent. It obviously hasn't turned out that way. It's approaching 10 percent now, 9.5. Most believe it will crack 10 percent in the months ahead. Did you underestimate the depths of the recession at the time? And is it maybe time now to go back and do more?

PELOSI: Well, one thing is for sure, if we hadn't done that stimulus package, the unemployment rate would be even higher. And I believe that as the -- it's like a time release capsule. As the initiatives are put forth in the timely fashion they were planned to, that more jobs will be created.

As you know, the job rate is -- joblessness -- there's a lag of turn in the economy and the lowering of the unemployment rate. So I believe that good times are ahead. I would rather just stick with the initiative that we have, get it out there faster, if we can, but not worry about doing another stimulus package.

I do think the health care bill is a stimulus package. I do believe that our energy bill was, for the creation of new green jobs, a jump start. I just remind you of this. When we passed our budget 100 days after the president became president, House and Senate both passed the budget that day, same day. And at that time, we passed a budget that had three pillars to turn the economy around, to create jobs and to lower the deficit -- energy, education, and health care.

These three bills are now out of committee -- in one case, energy, off the floor, in the House as we go forward. These are stimulants to the economy, as well. A new creation of jobs whether it's in the health care field, whether the energy field, and of course, energy and job creation begins in the classroom. So our education bill is part of that, as well.

KING: Madam Speaker, thank you.

PELOSI: Thank you.


KING: Up next, another STATE OF THE UNION exclusive. The Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell , tells us how his party would reform health care and revive the economy.


KING: Six months into the Obama presidency, Republicans are intensifying their criticism of his domestic agenda. They say the president's proposal for overhauling health care is too expensive for a country still deep in recession and gives the government too much power. They also call the $787 billion stimulus plan that Mr. Obama said would create new jobs a dismal failure.

With us now is the number one Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Mr. Leader, thanks for joining us.

MCCONNELL: Glad to be with you.

KING: I just heard -- you just heard the Speaker. I want to pick up with what she said. She says a public option in health care reform is, in her view, non-negotiable. Can Senate Republicans sign onto a plan that includes a public option?

MCCONNELL: I think I can pretty safely say there aren't any Senate Republicans who think a government plan is a good idea. We have 1,300 health insurance companies now, robust competition among them. We know that if we create a government plan, there won't be any more private health insurance companies and there won't be any competition.

We have a good example of that, John, already, in the automobile industry. The government is now running GM and Chrysler, and you know, in Louisville, they're making Fords, Ford vehicles. And the CEO of Ford called me up recently and said, The good news is people seem to like the fact that we haven't taken any government money and we're doing reasonably well, given the slowdown, the recession that we're in, but our problem is financing our cars because the government is backing up GMAC and Ford's financing arm.

So that's exactly what would happen in the health care system, and I think people on my side don't like it. And you know, it's interesting, the Democrats are having a hard time selling it to their own members, as well.

KING: Let's talk about another issue on the table. You say public option a non-starter with Senate Republicans. How to pay for this is another big thing. As you know, the House bill has a surtax on wealthy Americans. I know you don't like that. One of the things they're talking about in the Finance Committee, where a few of your members involved in the negotiations, trying to find bipartisan ground, is this so-called Cadillac insurance plan tax, that you would tax the most lucrative insurance policies that give way above average benefits. You OK with that?

MCCONNELL: Well, some of our members think that that's a reasonable way to go. But if you're talking about paying for it, let's look at the plans that are actually out there, John, the House bill and the Senate health committee bill. They pay for it by cutting doctors, cutting hospitals, and raising taxes on small business. Those are very difficult pay-fors (ph), and they're having a hard time selling it to their own members. The only thing bipartisan about the measures so far is the opposition to them.


KING: That's an interesting way to put it. Help me understand Senator Grassley's role, Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, senior Republican on the Finance Committee. He and a few other Republicans are in the negotiations. What has he promised you? Is a bipartisan bill three or four or five Republicans? Or has Senator Grassley expressly promised you that he would not sign onto anything in committee that can't get a good chunk of the Republican caucus?

MCCONNELL: Well, what Senator Grassley is doing, along with Senator Enzi, our top Republican on the health committee, are negotiating with the Democrats, Senator Baucus and some others, in that effort to come up with a truly bipartisan bill. What he does is report those discussions back to us. All of our membership is in a meeting every Wednesday afternoon in which Senator Grassley and Senator Enzi give them a rundown. They -- Senator Grassley and Senator Enzi give me a report on a daily basis, so they...

KING: And what is the extent of their promise to you?

MCCONNELL: Well, we have to see what they come up with. I mean, I think they -- I don't believe either one of them are going to sign onto a package that the vast majority of our members think is a bad idea. Our idea of bipartisanship, in the end, is not just talking, it's what do you do? And what kind of proposal is it? What is the policy?

KING: Well, on that point, I want to step back in time. After the election, as President-elect Obama was preparing to come to Washington, you gave a big speech at the National Press Club, where you laid out your views on what was likely to happen. And among the things you said was this.


MCCONNELL: We fully expect to be a full partner in developing major health care reform.


KING: Might sound a little cynical, but how's that going?

MCCONNELL: Well, I think we will be, at a certain point.

KING: You will be. You're not now.

MCCONNELL: Look, John, what's happened now is they can't sell it to their own members. As I said a minute ago, the only thing bipartisan so far is the opposition to it. At some point, they understand that in order to comfort their own members and to have broad support among the American people, it will need to be bipartisan. So far, they have produced a measure that they cannot sell even to their own members.

KING: So how do we do that? How do we change the process? In the past, if we go back to George H.W. Bush, when you had the budget crisis, he had the big summit at Camp David. Some say it cost him the presidency because he agreed to raise taxes. What's the circuit breaker? Can you offer one to the president, say, Mr. President, here's my hand as the leader of Senate Republicans, let's start over or start somewhere and let's do something different? What would it be?

MCCONNELL: Well, I think starting over would be a good idea. I mean, we've basically been negotiating off a set of Democrat-preferred options, shall I say. Now, we'd like to start over with a genuine bipartisan approach. And let me give you the kinds of things we ought to be able to do.

We know that we're losing billions of dollars every year in junk lawsuits against doctors and hospitals. We don't see any kind of legal abuse reform in any of these proposals. Everybody's excited about prevention. We've seen the example of the Safeway company, where the CEO there has incentivized his employees to target their own decisions -- quit smoking, fight obesity, check your cholesterol, your high blood pressure, exercise. They've actually incentivized their employees to engage in that kind of behavior and brought down the cost of their health insurance.

In addition to that, we know we have an access problem because of the rise in cost. Cost and access are the two big problems. Equalize the tax code. Make it possible for an individual who purchased insurance to deduct that cost, just like a corporation can in providing health insurance.

Those are the kinds of things that would dramatically move us in the right direction. And remember that we have the finest health care in the world now. We don't want to scrap the excellent quality that we have as we move forward.

KING: I want to ask you to watch me as I walk up to the magic wall because I want to talk about the political calculation of this debate as we do this because you mentioned we have the finest health care. If you look at the polls right now, 55 percent of the American people say we need a great deal of reform, 40 percent say we need some reform.

I want to look at this as we go forward. These are the Senate Republican seats up. The red states are the Senate Republicans up in the next election. And I want to circle a few because I just want to say -- when you see these states -- these are where you have members up next year, the states I've circled. And I want to come forward to the presidential election we just had. In those states there, and then add New Hampshire into that, states won by President Obama.

I want to understand whether you think it's helpful, when you look at this map and think about the calculation in the year ahead, to have some of your own members and leading voices in the party, like Senator DeMint in the Senate says, you know, This is Obama's Waterloo. He says, If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo, it will break him. And then Bill Kristol writing in "The Weekly Standard," a conservative paper, says, "Some Republicans will now be tempted, because Obama's back on his heels a bit, to cut a deal, to try to find a compromise." He says, "My advice, for what it's worth, resist the temptation. This is no time to pull punches. Go for the kill."

As the leader of Senate Republicans, as the highest elected Republican in the country, does Mitch McConnell think that saying, Let's break him and go for the kill, is constructive language?

MCCONNELL: I think what we ought to be doing is trying to fix the problem. The election's 15 months away. It'll take care of itself. What we ought to be doing now is concentrating on the health care issue. I don't know a single member of my conference in the Senate, not one, who doesn't want to pass health care reform. We ought to concentrate on trying to fix this -- fix this, do it right. This is a huge, huge issue that effects 16 percent of our economy. If we get it fixed right, the politics will take care of itself next year in the election.

KING: Can I translate that into saying that that language is not helpful? If you want to create -- if you want the American people to think you're serious and that you would like to do a bipartisan bill, is language like that, Go for the kill, This will break him, counterproductive?

MCCONNELL: Look, I can only speak for myself. What I think is the right for Senate Republicans to be doing is to try to get health care fixed, to do it the right way for the American people, and let the politics take care of itself next year.

KING: You were here at the two-month mark of the Obama administration, and I asked you for a report card. And this is what you said.


MCCONNELL: I'm disappointed after two months. The president has not governed in the middle, as I had hoped he would.


KING: Six months now, any different? Is your phone ringing more often?

MCCONNELL: Well, I would -- I think that was pretty accurate for now, too.


MCCONNELL: You know, the president's trying to do most of these things on the far left. I think the stimulus was a big mistake. I think we can, you know, fairly safely declare it now a failure. It was sold to us as something that was going to jolt the economy, that was going to hold unemployment to 8 percent. Unemployment's going over 10 percent.

We're spending $100 million a day in interest on the national debt. The deficit this year's going to be $1.8 trillion. To put that in context, we're going to have a bigger deficit this year than the last five years together. The budget that they passed, looking to the future, doubles the national debt in five and triples it in ten.

I think the administration's off on the wrong foot. I'd like to see him come back to the political middle, meet us there, and solve these problems for the American people.

KING: We're out of time, but let me ask you quickly, again, as the nation's highest elected Republican leader -- "Anchorage Daily News" here -- it is Sarah Palin 's last day as governor. Does she have a national future in your party?

MCCONNELL: Boy, I don't think we've seen the last of Sarah Palin . She excites an awful lot of members of my party and they're anxious to see what she's going to do next, and so am I.

KING: Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell , thank you for your time this morning.

MCCONNELL: Thank you.


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