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Interview with Senator Jay Rockefeller

Interview with Senator Jay Rockefeller

By Bloomberg Television - October 16, 2009

AL HUNT: And we're with Senator Jay Rockefeller, the Senate Finance Committee Health Subcommittee Chair. Senator, thank you for being with us.

You voted for the health-care bill in the Finance Committee, but you expressed some displeasure with it. Do you think progressives, liberals were too much cut out of this process?

SENATOR ROCKEFELLER: Yes, but that's not the reason that I voted for it or would have voted against it. I mean to me everything is on the merit.

I mean, look, the Senate Finance Committee is very conservative. And all the Republicans obviously were going to vote no from the very beginning.

HUNT: Except for Senator Snowe.

ROCKEFELLER: Except for Olympia Snowe, and that was a mystery up until the end. And, you know, I just - I didn't feel left out of anything. I just wished I'd been chairman.

HUNT: Well, let me - let's look ahead. You were left out of the gang of six negotiations -

ROCKEFELLER: Right.

HUNT: - as were most of the Democrats. Will you be part of that gang in Harry Reid's office that puts this thing together over the next week?

ROCKEFELLER: You know, I don't know. I won't, and I don't need to be because I'm very close to Harry Reid. I'm very close to Chris Dodd. I'm very close to Max Baucus. And I'm very close to the White House.

And one of the wonderful secrets is the White House is a very large participant in that forum. So I will be working the edges.

And I think, you know, my own view is that I was meant to vote against the bill because it didn't have a public option. And I put up a tough public option that got eight votes and Chuck Schumer put up a less tough one and got 10 votes. And so that told me we weren't going to win it.

HUNT: Well, let me ask you about that, because it would appear there are not the votes for the kind of public option that you've advocated and maybe even that Senator Schumer advocated.

Would you be willing to accept the Olympia Snowe proposal of a trigger? You've expressed reservations about it in past.

ROCKEFELLER: Harry Reid can put into that mark whatever he wants. And so if he puts in mine - less likely - Chuck Schumer's - more likely, - if he decides to do that, then it'll take 60 votes to take it out because it will be in the mark and that's the genius of that melding of both ways.

HUNT: You think he'll put the Schumer mark in?

ROCKEFELLER: I think it's more likely that he would, yes.

HUNT: Well, the most coveted woman politically in the world is Olympia Snowe, was on the committee and will still be on the floor. And might Senator Reid have to put her proposal in there and let her offer that proposal?

ROCKEFELLER: If - if we calculate so finely and so exquisitely, we're going to lose our leadership and our momentum. And right now, yes, we did get her vote. As she said yes for this one, it doesn't mean for the next round of votes.

But we can't sort of hedge and say, what's Olympia going to do. We've got to decide what we want. Now you're on the whole floor with all Democrats participating, or you're close to that point, and Harry has to speak for the whole caucus.

And, you know, there were 30 Democrats that signed a petition asking Harry for a public option. So, you know, it's not bad.

And the other thing, Al, you have to consider is that the public option is not just about the public option. The public option is about two things. One is there has to be a counterweight to the malevolence of the insurance industry - there has to be, otherwise they're just going to do what they've done for all of these years - you know, endless profits and no return.

But it's also the fact that there's no alternative. There's no alternative. The only alternative which is in the mark of the Finance Committee is something called co-ops.

HUNT: Right.

ROCKEFELLER: What's interesting is we never once over the past year ever discussed co-ops. We never once discussed it as a committee or as Democrats. We just didn't discuss it.

We avoided the subject for a very good reason; they don't exist. There's sort of one in Minneapolis and there's one in Puget Sound in the state of Washington and both the senators in Washington are voting for a public option.

So it sounds user-friendly, but all reports, including from the national association of those groups, say don't do this in health care. It doesn't work.

HUNT: You talk about the malevolence of the insurance industry. What - in addition to the public option - what other measures would you like to see - what other changes in this bill that more go after the insurance industry's greed?

ROCKEFELLER: One is I'd like to see a loss-ratio discipline put on the insurance industry. See, I just think they're on their own, they can do whatever they want, they have no checks - there's nothing in the Finance Committee mark which in any way prevents them from doing anything at all in the way of premiums.

I think they ought to spend 85 percent of all of the money that they collect from whatever source on health care - health care for consumers. And the other 15 percent they can spend however they wish. This is in a couple of the House bills. I think it's a discipline which works very, very well.

HUNT: If it's not in Senator Reid's mark, would you offer it in an amendment on the floor?

ROCKEFELLER: I certainly would. I mean I will anyway.

HUNT: One other question about the insurance industry. Christine Varney, the Obama antitrust chief, said this week that repealing the industry's antitrust exemption would spur competition and lower health-care costs. It's not going to probably be part of this bill, but is that something you'd like to see taken up later?

ROCKEFELLER: Yes.

HUNT: And you'd vote for that, too?

ROCKEFELLER: Yes.

HUNT: The Senate leadership and the White House both said they'd like to have a bill approved by Thanksgiving. Now you've been in the Senate for 25 years and I've covered it for longer.

ROCKEFELLER: Which Thanksgiving?

HUNT: You know, I was going to say -

ROCKEFELLER: This year or next?

HUNT: Don't - or which holiday are we talking about?

ROCKEFELLER: Yes, yes.

HUNT: Isn't it more realistic to say you'll be lucky to get it done by Christmas?

ROCKEFELLER: I'm not uncomfortable with that. And - I mean I care so much about health care now that to me it's a question of having a really good product.

And getting the most votes for it - not so much just the passing of it, but the convincing of people that a public option, for example, is not a malevolent thing, or convincing people which the Republicans are now doing the opposite of and that is that a $500 billion cut in Medicare is going to affect their benefits which it in fact will not.

HUNT: Right.

ROCKEFELLER: But it leaves open the whole question of waste, fraud and abuse which is just a mother lode in the health-care industry.

HUNT: And Senator Rockefeller, finally, what are the odds that Barack Obama this year will sign a significant health-care bill?

ROCKEFELLER: I think they're pretty good. I think the big test really was the Finance Committee because we are - tend to be conservative Democrats. There were just a few of us were isolated as being "progressive." I think that's being polite, isn't it?

HUNT: It is.

ROCKEFELLER: Yes. And we're very conservative and all the Republicans, except for Olympia Snowe, were voting no from the very beginning.

And you're just - it's like wiping out almost half the Senate and just saying well they're off the reservation so we won't worry about them. Well, that's a heck of a handicap when you have almost half the Senate saying no at the very beginning.

HUNT: Senator Rockefeller, thank you for being with us.

 

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