Senators Conrad and Grassley on "Face the Nation"

Senators Conrad and Grassley on "Face the Nation"

By Face the Nation - August 23, 2009

And good morning, again. Joining us now from Cedar Falls, Iowa, Senator Chuck Grassley, Republican. And here in the studio, Senator Kent Conrad . Gentlemen, welcome to you both.

I want to start with the most controversial part of this thing. House Speaker Pelosi said this week that she simply cannot pass a health care reform bill in the House unless it includes the so-called public option -- that is, the government-run insurance program like Medicare. Senator Grassley, you have said -- you're on the record as saying you can't support a bill that includes that public option. Senator Conrad, you have said that a bill with that option in it cannot pass the Senate. So I will just start with you, Senator Grassley, same question to both of you, so what should the president do now?

GRASSLEY: Well, of course the whole thing could be dropped, because I think when you have as one of your main principles you want to make health insurance available to everybody that doesn't have it, and you want to make it affordable and accessible, then you've got everybody covered, then you wonder why you need any new ideas.

But I would suggest Speaker Pelosi that she get an awful lot of Republican support if she would make that move to go along with something that's going to cover everybody. Remember, our whole principle, here, is to offer people choices, so people do have choices today, if they can get health insurance. The co-op plan that we have come up with, if it's run like Midwest co-ops that we've known for 150 years would be consumer-oriented, the benefits of it would go to the consumer, it would be regulated just like other insurance companies, it would still remain choices. If you have a public option and you eventually get to only one option, then there is no choices, and choice of different plans is what we want to preserve for America.

SCHIEFFER: All right, so Senator Conrad, you have been one of those talking about the so-called co-op plan, and that would be you would have a cooperative that would provide this insurance to people instead of the public option, but I want to just go back. You say the public option just simply can't pass. You still believe that? Do you think the president should just drop that and get on to something else?

CONRAD: Well, I would say this. It is very clear that in the United States Senate, the public option does not have the votes. If we have to get to 60 votes, you cannot get there with public option. That's why I was asked to come up with an alternative, and the alternative I came up with was this cooperative approach that, as Senator Grassley correctly describes, is not government run or government controlled, it's controlled by its membership. But it does provide not-for-profit competition to insurance companies, so it has appeal on both sides. It's the only proposal that has bipartisan support and if we're going to get 60 votes we're going to need bipartisan support.

SCHIEFFER: I don't want too deep into the weeds of Senate procedure here but there are some, including Tom Daschle, the former majority leader in the Senate who says if you use a procedure called reconciliation, which means you go around that requirement to have 60 votes before you can vote on anything, that you could pass it. Would that be an option here to think about?

CONRAD: Well, it's an option, it's available, but as I have argued for many months, it does not work very well. When you examine the way reconciliation works, it was designed solely for deficit reduction, so it anticipated just changing spending numbers and revenue numbers. It never contemplated substantive legislation. And the problem, then, is there are rules that apply to prevent substantive legislation, which health care reform certainly is, insurance reform certainly is, and what you are left with as the parliamentarian has told us would be Swiss cheese for legislation. So it's an option but it's not a very good one.

SCHIEFFER: Senator Grassley, yes, go ahead.

GRASSLEY: I want to say that, remember, reconciliation was put in place to get deficits down. The Dodd bill in the Senate and the Pelosi bill in the Senate drives the deficit up and it doesn't cut insurance inflation, and we need to tackle those issues as well, and then the other thing is, if you have reconciliation, it's a partisan approach, and I have said -- and everybody else is saying, too, this is such an important issue, you know, it's one-sixth of the economy, health care is, and health care implies life-and-death issues of every American and it ought to be done on a broad, bipartisan basis.

That's why we have the group of six. That's why we're trying to develop a bill that will get 70-80 votes because you need a consensus on something this very, very important.

SCHIEFFER: You bring up a very interesting point, because President Obama said, last week, that he now thinks Republicans -- or many Republicans think it's more important to defeat this for political reasons than it is to pass a health care reform bill. Why shouldn't -- if that is the case, why shouldn't the president just go ahead and try to ram this through with just Democratic votes, Senator Grassley, if that's the only way to do it? GRASSLEY: Well, that's not my goal or Senator Conrad's goal. We want bipartisanship because it is very, very important. The president's told me a lot of times he wants bipartisanship, and part of the problem is you get conflicting signals out of the White House. Like a week ago, on one of these Sunday programs, the secretary of HHS was on and said maybe a public option wouldn't be necessary. And then in a couple days, the president gets hit from the left and he says it's very, very important, so it would help if we would not get conflicting views from the White House.

SCHIEFFER: Do you think, Senator Conrad, the president's got to be a little more specific on exactly what he wants here?

CONRAD: You know, I think the president's come at this in about the right way. That is, he's said, "Look, Congress, it is your responsibility to come up with a detailed legislative plan." He's set certain principles, he's said, "Look, you've got to contain costs, expand coverage, improve quality. But Congress, it's your responsibility to come up with the details." And he's kept the pressure on by saying, "You can't just have an endless conversation."

SCHIEFFER: Yeah, but nothing's happened -- you've come to loggerheads here. He wanted all this done before the August recess.

CONRAD: Well, I've always thought that that specific deadline could not be met, because in our group the only committee that is doing this in a bipartisan way, three Democrats, three Republicans, we have said the important thing is to get this right, and this is enormously complicated. In our group, Senator Grassley and the rest of us, we've spent hundreds of hours, and that's really what it's going to take to do this in the right way. But it can't be an endless conversation. At some point, you have to fish or cut bait.

SCHIEFFER: Senator Grassley, you have talked as Senator Conrad has about a bipartisan approach. But you really caught some Democrats off guard, a couple weeks ago, when you said this the other day. Listen to this.


GRASSLEY: We should not have a government program that determines you're going to pull the plug on grandma.


SCHIEFFER: Now, Democrats say there is nothing in this legislation that would pull the plug on grandma, or even require people to discuss it. Why did you say that, Senator Grassley?

GRASSLEY: I said that because -- two reasons. Number one, I was responding to a question at my town meetings. I let my constituents set the agenda. A person that asked me that question was reading from language that they got off of the Internet. It scared my constituents. And the specific language I used was language that the president had used at Portsmouth, and I thought that it was -- if he used the language, then if I responded exactly the same way, that I had an opposite concern about not using end-of-life counseling for saving money, then I was answering --

SCHIEFFER: All right.

GRASSLEY: And relieving the fears that my constituents had, and from that standpoint, remember, you're talking about this issue being connected with a government-run program which a public option would take you with. You would get into the issue of saving money, and put these three things together and you are scaring a lot of people when I know the Pelosi bill doesn't intend to do that, but that's where it leads people to.

SCHIEFFER: Well, that's what I was trying to get from you this morning. You're not saying that this legislation would pull the plug on grandma, you're just saying there are a lot of people out there who think that it would. Or do you want to say this morning that that is not true, that it won't do that?

GRASSLEY: It won't do that, but I wanted to explain why my constituents are concerned about it, and I also want to say that there is an $8 billion cost with that issue, and if you're trying to save money and you put an $8 billion of doctors giving you some advice at the end of life, doctors are going to take advantage of earning that $8 billion and constituents see that as an opportunity to save some money.

It just scares the devil out of people.

GRASSLEY: So that ought to be dropped.

And by the way, some newspaper people were saying that we dropped it from the Senate Finance Committee because of the hullabaloo that you just played, and that's not true. We got this out of our bill a long time ago.

And Senator Conrad will tell you that I was in conversation with people on the Finance Committee way back in March that we were not going to have any of this end-of-life stuff in our bill because it scares people.

SCHIEFFER: All right. That point taken.

Senator Conrad, some Republicans are advancing the idea of maybe you could split this bill in two, take some of the less controversial aspects, put it in one bill and vote on that, then go after the other parts of it. Lyndon Johnson certainly did that with the civil rights legislation. Would that be a good idea?

CONRAD: I think it's very unlikely, Bob, for that to work. You know, when you look at the legislative agenda, it's very hard to see how you put two packages through and coordinate them well.

Look, we've got enough of a problem with the country heading for the cliff, and we're headed for a cliff because costs in health care are spiraling out of control. It's the biggest unfunded liability of the United States.

We've got Medicare, according to the trustees, going to be broke in eight years. We're spending twice as much as any other country in the world. We've got to take measures to contain costs, and we've got to do it in a way that makes affordability better for our constituents.

SCHIEFFER: OK. Senator Grassley, talking about paring this bill down, how much could you pare it down? You say it has got to be a smaller bill. Give me a number. What would be a realistic number on how much this is going to cost? They're talking about a trillion dollars now. You say that's too much. How much could you pare this bill down?

GRASSLEY: Well, what we have to do is what we can do without -- there's two goals we have. Not adding to the deficit, and making sure that we don't have health insurance inflation much above the general inflation of the entire economy. That's our goal. The other goal is to have good policy.

Then we put that good policy to the Congressional Budget Office. They score it. If it's too high, then we bring it back. But the main goal is...

SCHIEFFER: Can you give me a number this morning, Senator?

GRASSLEY: No. No, I will not give you a number.

SCHIEFFER: Senator Conrad, can you give me a number? What would be a realistic price for this?

CONRAD: You know, we have not reached conclusions, so I don't want to go further than we should. But I would just say this, it's going to have to be significantly less than what we've heard talked about, because not only do we have to pay for this, we also have to bend the cost curve in the right way.

That means we've got to have the deficit reduced as a result of this effort. That is absolutely imperative.

SCHIEFFER: So considerably less than what's being talked about now if it's going to pass. Gentlemen, thanks to both of you.

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