|WRAPPING UP BUSINESS|
August 6, 1999
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: When Congress and the President departed for their August break today, they left behind two issues sure to dominate the political discussion when they return. Kwame Holman reports.
KWAME HOLMAN: Before leaving for Arkansas this morning, President Clinton stopped and delivered a statement from the White House lawn, covering a range of issues.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Good morning.
KWAME HOLMAN: The President first announced that relevant cabinet members would convene a task force to confront problems caused by the drought. He also applauded July's low unemployment figures, and then once again promised to veto the Republicans' $792 billion tax cut plan, approved yesterday by both Houses of Congress.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I am disappointed, though not surprised, that the majority party in Congress has chosen to pass its massive tax cut, one that plainly would damage our economic future and make it impossible to secure and modernize Medicare. But again, I want to assure the American people, because this tax cut will not save and strengthen Medicare, because it will not add a day to the Social Security Trust Fund, because it will not pay down the debt and pay it off for the first time in over 150 years, this tax cut will not become law.
KWAME HOLMAN: But for a time last night, it appeared the Senate would decide that the tax cuts would not become law.
SPOKESMAN: May we have order?
KWAME HOLMAN: The vote was close. All 45 Democrats previously had announced their opposition to the tax cuts, and a handful of moderate Republicans said they were leaning that way as well. Some of their concerns were expressed during the debate by Arizona Republican John McCain, who nonetheless said he would vote for the bill.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: An American family making $65,000 per year would get just $47 in tax cuts based on the income tax rate deductions in this bill in 2002. At the same time, poultry farmers get an immediate tax break totaling $30 million over ten years to convert chicken manure into electricity. Why are we giving a big break to chicken farmers when American families get not a dime in tax relief?
SPOKESPERSON: Mr. Biden. No.
KWAME HOLMAN: Adding to the drama was the fact that Idaho Republican Michael Crapo, a tax cut supporter, was attending his daughter's wedding and would not return in time to vote.
SPOKESPERSON: Mr. Specter. No.
KWAME HOLMAN: As it turned out, Crapo's absence did not cost Republicans their tax cuts.
SPOKESPERSON: Yeas are 50. The nays are 49 and the Conference report is agreed to.
KWAME HOLMAN: At the Capitol today, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said the tax bill now is in the hands of the American people, and asked them to challenge the President on his veto threat.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I think that if the American people will make themselves heard, we'll see once again one of the Clintonian 180's, where he said, "I will veto this bill, I will veto this bill, I will veto that bill," and time after time after time, when the poll numbers changed, he signed them. So it's up to the American people. If the American people really think that they should be able to keep just a little bit more of their money instead of being overcharged by the Washington government, say so.
KWAME HOLMAN: The House had passed the tax cut bill earlier in the day by a somewhat more comfortable margin. However, the action on tax cuts in both Houses of Congress yesterday drew attention away from another important development. It involved the ongoing debate over HMO reform, known on Capitol Hill as the Patient's Bill of Rights. It's an issue that Democrats in particular have pursued for months.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT, Minority Leader: We need to listen to the voices of the Republican doctors in Congress, Dr. Ganske, Dr. Coburn, Dr. Norwood, and move forward on this issue. Republican leaders need to stop fighting bipartisan progress and let managed care reform move forward. It's what families want, what they need and what they deserve and we're going to fight this summer to get it done.
KWAME HOLMAN: Even as members were leaving the Hill last evening for their month-long recess, a bipartisan group in the House led by Charles Norwood, a former dentist, announced it had reached agreement on new managed care reform legislation. And then early this morning, House Speaker Dennis Hastert reportedly cleared the way for a vote on a rival Republican plan, sponsored by Tom Coburn, a practicing obstetrician. Coburn left Washington early today, but we caught up with Congressman Norwood this afternoon just before his departure.
KWAME HOLMAN: Can you describe what you and Dr. Coburn are trying to do?
REP. CHARLES NORWOOD: Sure. Well, there is one bill, our bill that we dropped around 11 o'clock last night, we filed it as a bipartisan bill. We referred to it as the Bipartisan Consensus Managed Care Reform Bill. The whole subject is about reforming managed care and giving patients back their rights. Early this morning, I think Dr. Coburn, who is a good friend of mine-- and we have drawn up two bills together already-- came to agreement with the Republican leadership that there would be a Republican bill. They don't have a bill. They have a discussion, a summary. We'll see what's in the bill.
KWAME HOLMAN: Describe, if you would, the fundamental provisions of your bipartisan bill.
REP. CHARLES NORWOOD: Well, there are three major, very important, parts that have to be in any bill. First, it has to cover all Americans. Secondly, we have to give back to the doctors that make the determination of what medical treatment you need, especially at what we call the external review panel. There has to be somewhere for the American people to appeal decisions when insurance companies say, "sorry, we know you bought this benefit but we don't think you ought to have it. Our accountant says no and your doctor says yes," they need to be able to appeal that. Lastly we want to say to the insurance agency that they shouldn't be different than anybody else in America. If they want to practice medicine and they want to make decisions and they harm people and are negligent, then the people they've harmed have a right to go to court and say, "you have hurt me on purpose, for bad reasons. I want to settle this in court rather than going back to the six-gun days."
KWAME HOLMAN: Many members of your party, as you very well know, oppose reform, HMO reform for that reason -- because they say the right to sue will drive up the costs and increase the number of uninsured.
REP. CHARLES NORWOOD: The people who say it will drive up costs are the insurance companies. They're the ones who say everything bad about any time we want to reform managed care and get in their business that affects their bottom line. It's very questionable whether it will drive up costs. Texas is a perfect example. People in Texas have had the right to sue for two years. There have been two suits. There has not been this gigantic swell of costs because of this. You know, people could have sued me all of my life as I was a practicing dentist. All of my life, I've carried malpractice insurance. That's part of it. It's like your electric bill. It's prudent to do. It is probably prudent now -- when we get this bill passed -- it's going to be prudent for the insurance companies to do that but driving up costs is a red herring.
KWAME HOLMAN: Then this issue is alive for this fall, for this session, and not to be put off as a campaign issue --
REP. CHARLES NORWOOD: No, no. There are people in both parties that don't want to pass a bill. We understand that. There are Democrats who don't want to pass a bill. There are some Republicans who don't want to pass a bill. But we have got a really honest speaker. I know that. I think the world of him. Denny Hastert is an honest man. He told us we would vote in September. I bet you we do.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate has already passed a Republican version of the Patient's Bill of Rights which President Clinton has said he would veto. But before leaving the White House today, the President said he was encouraged by the bipartisan progress the House has made on the issue.