Interviews with Speaker Pelosi & Sen. Alexander

Interviews with Speaker Pelosi & Sen. Alexander

By This Week - February 28, 2010

VARGAS: Madam Speaker, welcome back again to "This Week." Let's talk health care.

PELOSI: Good to be here.

VARGAS: The president said after the summit we cannot have another year of debate on this issue. We need decisions now. You said on Friday, "We are determined to pass health care." Do you have the 217 votes necessary to pass it in the House?

PELOSI: Well right now we're working on the -- on the policy. The -- the president put a -- a -- I think a good proposal on the Internet on Sunday. We're examining that very carefully to make sure it has all the affordability we need for the middle class. All the accountability for the insurance industry. And the accessibility that we need to have.

I -- from the meeting on Thursday -- the summit meeting, I -- I believe that we're ready for the next step, which is to write legislative language, and then go from there.

VARGAS: So what are the fixes the Senate needs to make in your opinion? Through reconciliation presumably before the House can vote on it...

PELOSI: Well whatever...


PELOSI: Well I -- I believe listening to the president yesterday -- he's still hopeful that there's a way to have a bipartisan bill. But whatever route the Senate takes, we would like to see again more affordability for the middle class. This is very, very important. This is a bill about the middle class -- their access to health care, and the affordability that makes that access possible.

Secondly we want to close the donut hole for seniors. This is really an important mistake that was made when the republicans passed the prescription drug bill. And we want the seniors to have the comfort of knowing that in this bill the donut hole will be patched. And it's a technical -- a slang term for something that means the seniors pay more...

VARGAS: But if you get that...Will you--

PELOSI: The seniors pay more. And we have more. We want to eliminate the Nebraska fix that -- have equity for all of the states. And that in terms of some of the investments. There are more. But those are the three -- three of the main ones.

But one of the biggest differences is the -- how the bill would be paid for. We -- will we cut waste, fraud, and abuse. Over half a trillion dollars in the bill. But we still needed more of a pay for. The Senate bill had a tax that we did not like in the House. And I think the president's proposal addresses that concern.

So now we will -- it's a question of when you go down to legislative language, you -- you need the clarity. And that's when you find out what everything means.

VARGAS: But you know that the polls show that the American people are deeply divided on health care. Many of them are opposed to it. Even though they are supporting certain...

PELOSI: Pieces of it.

VARGAS: Specific pieces of it. What do you say to your members, when it does come to the House to vote on this, who are in real fear of losing their seats in November if they support you now?

PELOSI: Well first of all our members -- every one of them -- wants health care. I think everybody wants affordable health care for all Americans. They know that this will take courage. It took courage to pass Social Security. It took courage to pass Medicare. And many of the same forces that were at work decades ago are at work again against this bill.

But the American people need it, why are we here? We're not here just to self perpetuate our service in Congress. We're here to do the job for the American people. To get them results that gives them not only health security, but economic security, because the health issue is an economic issue for -- for America's families.

VARGAS: Do you wish though that the president had posted his bill before this week? That six months ago it might have been more helpful for you. That maybe six months ago you knew that the public option was something he was going to drop before you fought so hard for it?

PELOSI: Well we -- we still fight for the -- what the public option will do. Whether it's in the bill or not, its purpose must be recognized. And that is to keep the insurance companies honest. To keep them accountable, and to increase competition. And I think in the summit on Thursday it became very clear that what the president was proposing was regulation of the insurance companies.

Left to their own devices they have done harm to the American people. They need to be regulated. And that is one of the biggest differences between the Democrats and the Republicans. Another one for example is -- an example of it is ending the denial of -- of coverage to those who have a preexisting condition. The Democrats have that in their bill. The Republicans do not.

VARGAS: But would you...

PELOSI: But that's a major insurance reform that has to take place.

VARGAS: But would we still be debating this if the president had put his plan out six months ago?

PELOSI: Well, I don't know what -- what the value of trying -- the president has tried since one year ago March 5th. We met in Washington D.C. in a bipartisan way with some of the outside stakeholders to talk about working together to have health care accessible for all Americans. I smile because I remember Senator Kennedy coming into the room and saying, "I'm signing up as a foot soldier in the fight for health care reform." And of course he was such a tremendous leader.

But that was a year ago. Since then we've had hundreds of hours of meetings, and hearings, and mark ups of bills -- well over a hundred Republican amendments are in this bill -- the -- the House and Senate bills. And what the president put forth  we'll see some of what was said yesterday. So those who were making constructive contributions can be accommodated.

Whether we get Republican votes or not -- the bill definitely has bipartisan provisions in it. But if they have a good idea that works for the American people, whether they're in the vote for the bill or not, we want it in the bill.

VARGAS: How long are willing to wait for those ideas?

PELOSI: Well we -- but that that happened yesterday. And so ...

VARGAS: I mean -- I made it clear -- the president -- The president made it clear that time is up.

PELOSI: Time is up. Yes. So we really have to go forth, because as I said there -- as we sit around this table, this big table in Blair House -- every night families sit around their kitchen table -- try to figure out their finances.

Their -- the security of their jobs, the cost of their children's education, how they're going to pay their medical bills. What is the status of their pensions? And they can't wait any longer. If, you know, if your family has a  a preexisting condition, or if you ever been denied coverage, or if you have a -- a rescission. If your insurance has been withdrawn just as you're about to need a procedure, you know it's long overdue.

And what's the point of talking about it any longer?

VARGAS: If -- but the point is when it does finally come to vote on it in the House, you're certain that you can muster the 217 votes that you need...


VARGAS: ... even with the differences over abortion language? Things...


VARGAS:... that there are members of the House who voted in favor of it before, who are now saying, "We can't vote for this bill, because of the Senate language on abortion?

PELOSI: Well let me say I have this in three -- just so you know how we sequence this. First we zero in on what the policy will be. And that is what we'll be doing -- following the president's summit yesterday.

Secondly, we'll see what the Senate can do. What is the substance? And what is the Senate prepared to do? And then we'll go to the third step as to what my -- my members will vote for. But we have a very diverse party. But we all agree that the present system is unsustainable. It's unsustainable.

It's unaffordable for families, for -- and individuals, for businesses -- large, small, and moderate sized businesses. It's unsustainable to our budget. We cannot afford the rising cost of -- of health care. As the president has said, "Health care reform is entitlement reform." And it's unsustainable for our economy. We want to be competitive. These health care costs are a competitiveness issue. They diminish the opportunities for our businesses domestically and internationally to compete without this anvil of health care costs around their necks.

VARGAS: You mentioned jobs. Members of the House have already weighed in on the Senate jobs bill saying it's too small and does too little. The Congressional Black Caucus said it shouldn't even be called a jobs bill. Should you agree to the smaller, incremental approach given that unemployment is the single biggest issue in this country right now?

PELOSI: Well, we wanted to move as quickly as possible on jobs. We passed our bill in December, as you probably know. What the Senate is taking is a segmented approach to it. And I think when everyone sees what the different pieces are, they will know that we're on the path --

VARGAS: But you've said that's OK. Is it OK to do it in that smaller, incremental way, and not the big, dramatic way that the House proposed?

PELOSI: Well, it would have been faster if they would just agree to our bill last year because people are hurting, they need jobs and we need to move quickly. This won't take a long time to do, but every piece of it will not have every provision in it that we want but it will all create jobs and help small businesses grow because that's where major job creation is. It addresses concerns that we have about our veterans coming home who have -- are facing unemployment. It is the biggest issue for our seniors. And believe it or not, jobs in the economy are the biggest issue for our seniors and their opportunities as well. So it is -- it's a four letter word that we use around here all the time, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs.

And by the way, the health care bill is a jobs bill. It will create four million new jobs, several hundred thousand immediately upon enactment. And it will also encourage an entrepreneurial spirit in our country where people can take risks and be entrepreneurial because they know they have health care.

VARGAS: The Ethics Committee on Charles Rangel said that he has violated the House gift rule.

PELOSI: Uh-huh.

VARGAS: How can he remain in such a powerful position as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee?

PELOSI: Well, I think --

VARGAS: Given the fact that there are further pending ethics investigations and this public admonishment has taken place.

PELOSI: Well, it is a public admonishment. It said he did not knowingly violate House rules. So that gives him some comfort. But the fact is that we have a --

VARGAS: He should have known though, don't you think?

PELOSI: Well, I don't know. You understand that the Ethics Committee is an independent, bipartisan committee in the House. They act independent of us. And that's exactly the way it should be. I, though, when I became speaker, instituted an outside ethics panel which makes recommendations in so that we have a double way to receive information, although the ethics committee can self initiate, as well as take recommendations from the outside panel. So we're going to look forward to seeing what else they have to say about what they have before him regarding Chairman Rangel.

VARGAS: If there are further admonishments, though, should he remain in this position?

PELOSI: Well, let's why don't we just give him a chance to hear what the independent, bipartisan -- they work very hard to reach their conclusions and we obviously there's more to come here.

VARGAS: And  but you don't -- you understand this is why so many Americans think Congress is corrupt. It just doesn't -- it doesn't look good. It doesn't pass the smell test.

PELOSI: No, it doesn't. No, it doesn't. I served for seven years on the Ethics Committee and the last thing I would have wanted would be for the Speaker of the House to interfere in a political way in what was going on there. That just should never happen. But the fact is, is that what Mr. Rangel has been admonished for is not good. It was a violation of the rules of the House. It was not a -- something that jeopardized our country in any way.

So it remains to be seen what the rest of the work of the committee is. And I hope it will be soon. But again, it's independent and they go with their own -- they go at their own pace.

VARGAS: Let's talk a bit about the coming elections in November. You had recently-- and the Tea Party movement, do you think it will be a force to be reckoned with? You had said last summer that it was a faux grassroots movement. You called it the Astroturf movement.

PELOSI: In some respects it is. Uh-huh.

VARGAS: Is the Tea Party movement a force?

PELOSI: No  No what I said at the time is, that they were -- the Republican Party directs a lot of what the Tea Party does, but not everybody in the Tea Party takes direction from the Republican Party. And so there was a lot of, shall we say, Astroturf, as opposed to grassroots.

But, you know, we share some of the views of the Tea Partiers in terms of the role of special interest in Washington, D.C., as -- it just has to stop. And that's why I've fought the special interest, whether it's on energy, whether it's on health insurance, whether it's on pharmaceuticals and the rest.

VARGAS: So, common ground with many people in the Tea Party movement.

PELOSI: Well, no, there are some. There are some because they, again, some of it is orchestrated from the Republican headquarters. Some of it is hijacking the good intentions of lots of people who share some of our concerns that we have about the role of special interests and many Tea Partiers, not that I speak for them, share the view, whether it's -- and Democrats, Republicans and Independents share the view that the recent Supreme Court decision, which greatly empowers the special interests, is something that they oppose.

VARGAS: Finally, President Obama, when asked to rate his year in office, gave himself a B plus. How would you rate yourself in the past year?

PELOSI: Well, I have a -- I think I get an A for effort. And in the House of Representatives, my mark is the mark of our members. We have passed every piece of legislation that is part of the Obama agenda. Whether it's the creation of jobs, expanding access to health care, creating new green jobs for the future, regulatory reform, we have passed the full agenda.

VARGAS: Are you frustrated so many bills have not have been stalled in the Senate? Almost 300 bills passed by the House that are sitting languishing in the Senate?

PELOSI: And most of those bills have bipartisan support. Strong bipartisan support in the House that have gone over there. But that you know what that's about? That's about -- and it's very important for you to know, that's about the Republican delay tactics. By requiring 60 votes on some simple legislation that Harry Reid always gets -- has the votes for, but he doesn't have the time to go through the procedural day after day where you have to wait days for the time to go by in order to get the 60 votes. That's how it works in the Senate.

So it's about time. Everything's about time. The most finite commodity that we have. We used our time very well in the House to get an agenda passed in time for it to be considered by the Senate. The delaying tactics of the Republicans in the Senate&

VARGAS: Dare I ask you to grade the Senate?

PELOSI: Well, let's grade this all on a curve. What really matters is, what we do and how it relates to the lives of the American people back to that kitchen table where they have to think about how they make ends meet and how they make the future better for their children and provide for their own retirement. That's really where the grade goes. And the grade is given on election day. We -- we're fully prepared to face the American people with the integrity of what we have put forth, the commitment to jobs and health care and education and a world at peace and safe for our children and with the political armed power to go with it to win those elections.

VARGAS: Madam Speaker, thank you for joining us.

PELOSI: My pleasure.


VARGAS: And we are joined now by the Republican point man at the health care summit, Senator Lamar Alexander.

Senator, welcome to "This Week."

ALEXANDER: Thank you, Elizabeth.

VARGAS: You just said heard Speaker Pelosi and President Obama say time is up, we're not scrapping the plan, we're not starting from scratch, this is it. Are you going to -- are the Republicans going to offer some amendments (inaudible)

ALEXANDER: We -- we already have. I mean, we spent seven hours on Thursday, which I thought was a great opportunity for us to say why we thought the president's bill is not a good bill and what we think we ought to do, which is to establish a goal of reducing costs and go step by step toward that goal. And we offered a number of good ideas, some of which the president agreed with, and he'll put his bill aside and renounce jamming the bill through. We can go to work on this the way we normally do in the United States Senate, which is in a bipartisan way.

VARGAS: But he has said he's not going to scrap the bill, he's moving forward with or without you. So why not be part of the process? Why not take what you consider to be an imperfect bill and at least attach some proposals that you support?

ALEXANDER: Well, this is a...


ALEXANDER: This is a car that can't be recalled and fixed. There are too many things wrong with it. It cuts Medicare a half-trillion dollars. It raises taxes a half-trillion dollars. And in the Medicare cuts, the point that didn't get made very much on Thursday, it doesn't cut it to help Medicare. It cuts Medicare to spend on a new program at a time when Medicare is going broke in 2015.

It raises insurance premiums. The president and I had a little exchange on that. It shifts big costs to states, which are going to drive up college tuitions and state taxes. As a former governor, I've heard from Democratic and Republican governors on this. It dumps 15 million low-income Americans into a failed government program called Medicaid. Fifty percent of doctors won't even see patients in Medicaid.

So you can't fix that unless they take all those things out. And if they did, they wouldn't have a bill.

VARGAS: You had said in your opening remarks at the health care summit, you quoted Senator Byrd when you said -- you called on the president to renounce using reconciliation to push the bill through the Senate with a simple majority vote, saying, quote, "It would be an outrage to run the health care bill through the Senate like a freight train with this process."

Why -- why are you so opposed to this, given the fact that Republicans have used reconciliation more often than Democrats in the past?

ALEXANDER: Well, the outraged words were Senator Byrd's words, not mine.

VARGAS: True...


ALEXANDER: You're correct. The reconciliation procedure is a -- where you use legislative (ph) procedure is a (ph) -- where you use -- legislative procedure 19 times it's been used. It's for the purpose of taxing and spending and -- and reducing deficits.

But the difference here is that there's never been anything of this size and magnitude and complexity run through the Senate in this way. There are a lot of technical problems with it, which we could discuss. It would turn the Senate -- it would really be the end of the United States Senate as a protector of minority rights, as a place where you have to get consensus, instead of just a partisan majority, and it would be a political kamikaze mission for the Democratic Party if they jam this through after the American people have been saying, look, we're trying to tell you in every way we know how, in elections, in surveys, in town hall meetings, we don't want this bill.

VARGAS: Why political kamikaze, though? We know that Americans don't support health care in general, but when you start drilling down into the specifics, a lot of people do support some of those specifics.

ALEXANDER: Oh, they do support some of the specifics, but you put it all together, they don't like it. They don't want their Medicare cut. They don't want their taxes increased. They don't want their premiums increased. I mean, millions of American will have their premiums increased. The governors are up in arms about the new cost on states, so people have decided -- and -- and there's a sense that Washington is taking over too much.

So I was thinking this morning of President George W. Bush, when he tried so hard to have private accounts for Social Security. He thought he was right. He pushed, he pushed, and he pushed. If he'd stopped about halfway through and shifted, he could have probably gotten a bipartisan agreement on Social Security. I think President Obama could learn from that.

He has a lot of us who would like to help him write a health care bill, but not this one.

VARGAS: When you say political kamikaze, are you saying that if the Democrats push this through, they will lose all their seats in November? I mean, what are we talking about here?

ALEXANDER: Well, here's what I think. I mean, the people are saying, "We don't want it," and the Democrats are saying, "We don't care. We're going to pass it anyway." And so for the next three months, Washington will be consumed with the Democrats trying to jam this through in a very messy procedure an unpopular health care bill.

And then for the rest of the year, we're going to be involved in a campaign to repeal it. And every Democratic candidate in the country is going to be defined by this unpopular health care bill at a time when the real issues are jobs, terror and debt.

VARGAS: You also said in your remarks at the summit that Republicans have come to the conclusion that Congress, quote, "doesn't do comprehensive well," that our country is too big and too complicated for Washington. But Congress has passed many historic and sweeping and comprehensive bills in the past, Medicare, the civil rights bill, the Americans with Disabilities Act. Are you saying that this Congress is uniquely incapable of doing something sweeping and massive and dramatic?

ALEXANDER: Well, the answer's yes, in that sense.

VARGAS: That's not good.

ALEXANDER: But no -- but let me go back. You mentioned the civil rights bill. I was a very young aide here when President Johnson, who had more Democratic votes in Congress than President Obama had, had the civil rights bill written in Everett Dirksen's office. He was the Republican leader.

He did that not just to pass it. He did it to make sure that, when it was passed, it would be accepted by the people and there wouldn't be a campaign as there will be in health care to repeal it from the day it's passed.

Today I've watched the comprehensive immigration bill, I've watched the comprehensive economy-wide cap and trade, I've watched the comprehensive health care bill, they fall of their own weight, because we're biting off more than we can chew in a country this big and complex and complicated.

I think we do better as a country when we go step by step toward a goal, and the goal in this case should be reducing health care costs.

VARGAS: So the country has changed or Congress has changed?

ALEXANDER: Well, I think the size of the effort (ph) has changed. I mean, a 2,700-page bill is going to be unpopular because you're hiding something in it. It's full of surprises. It's -- it's -- policy skeptics believe in the law of unintended consequences. And when you write a bill in the middle of the night in a partisan way and, you know, pass it on Christmas Eve and it's that long, it'll have surprises like the cornhusker kickback, which was probably the death blow to the health care bill.

VARGAS: Your colleague, Senator Evan Bayh, recently announced his resignation, basically throwing his hands up in disgust, saying Congress is broken, and I want to be -- I don't want to be part of it any more. He cited you as one of the few Republican senators that he felt that he could find common ground with, work with, agree with. How are we going to fix Congress and empower Congress to be able to pass the sweeping kinds of changes that we need in this country when people like Evan Bayh just take their -- go home, in essence, give up and go home?

ALEXANDER: Well, you know, former governors -- and I'm one -- always have a hard time with the Senate. You know, we're -- we're used -- governors are used to saying, "Let's go this way," and a legislator in a reactor to things. So that's part of the problem.

The second is, a lot more is going on than one would think. I mean, Senator Carper, a Democrat, and I introduced a clean air bill with 11 Democrats and Republicans. We hope we can pass it this year. Senator Webb, a Democrat, and I worked on -- have introduced a nuclear power bill. Senator Graham, Kerry, and Lieberman are working on a climate change bill.

So if you take specific steps toward goals, we're more likely to succeed. And my observation is that -- in a country our complex -- we can't do these big comprehensive...


VARGAS: But very, very quickly, when somebody like a Senator Scott Brown, for example, breaks ranks with Republicans and votes against a filibuster to get the jobs bill to the floor of the Senate, he gets on his Facebook page, you know, all sorts of angry postings, calling him a double-crosser, a sellout, a Judas. What does that say about the political environment right now?

ALEXANDER: It says we live in a very volatile (ph) political environment, and Scott Brown and I and others simply have to do what we think is right. And if we do, which is to get results in a bipartisan way, we'll probably be re-elected or at least we'll have done a good job.

VARGAS: Senator Lamar Alexander, thank you so much for joining us here this morning on "This Week."

ALEXANDER: Thank you.


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