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Democrats Inch Health Care Reform Negotiations Forward

March 11, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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House and Senate Democrats moved a step closer to final agreement on health care legislation with hours of closed-door negations Thursday. Jim Lehrer talks to NPR reporter Julie Rovner about the price tag and the hurdles facing the bill.
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JIM LEHRER: There were signs today that Democrats are close to clearing the way for a vote on health care reform.

“NewsHour” congressional correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

KWAME HOLMAN: Indications of agreement came after days of deliberations and a two-hour briefing today for House Democrats.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the president’s top health care adviser, Nancy-Ann DeParle, explained what’s taking shape.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif., speaker of the house: She walked through the president’s proposal. And members had opportunity to ask questions about it, express some of their priorities — public option, public option, public option, as you can imagine — and, again, another step taking us closer to voting on quality, affordable health care for all Americans.

KWAME HOLMAN: Pelosi said there’s now enough to move forward.

And, across the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also sounded hopeful.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev., majority leader: But we have made a lot of progress. I have another couple meetings later today. And we feel comfortable that the American people have health care within their grasp. We feel that this is something that we — we can do. It’s not done yet, and that’s an understatement.

KWAME HOLMAN: The reported progress on a health care bill comes after closed-door meetings here at the Capitol that extended late into the evening yesterday between White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Democratic leaders. The talks centered on additional subsidies to cover low-income people, more Medicaid money for states, and how to ensure taxpayer funds don’t pay for abortions.

By today, Democratic leaders, including Henry Waxman of California, conceded they will have to try to pass something without anti-abortion Democrats. But they said it’s still possible to round up 216 votes in the House, a majority, even with Republicans solidly opposed.

The plan calls for the House to adopt the bill that passed the Senate last December. A second bill would include the changes sought by House Democrats. It would need only a simple majority in the Senate, under the so-called reconciliation process.

One key part of the equation will be cost. Democratic leaders want the final tab to come in under $950 billion over 10 years.

And Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell urged Democrats today to wait until the Congressional Budget Office answers the cost question.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky., minority leader: Democrat leaders are telling us their members have to vote on this latest version of the same bill by Easter — the latest version of the same bill by Easter.

When are we going to find out how much that one costs? Columbus Day? Americans aren’t in any rush to pass this or any other 2,700-page bill that poses as reform, but actually raises the cost of health care.

KWAME HOLMAN: White House officials today pulled back from demanding House action by March 18, before the president travels to Asia and Australia. And Speaker Pelosi said that timetable is merely an interesting date.

JIM LEHRER: For more, we go to Julie Rovner, who has been covering this story for NPR.

Julie, welcome.

JULIE ROVNER, health policy correspondent, National Public Radio: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: And these signs of movement are real?

JULIE ROVNER: I would think so.

We were hold that, in that meeting this morning with Nancy-Ann DeParle from the White House, the speaker asked if members wanted to vote sooner, rather than later. And they resoundingly said sooner.

JIM LEHRER: Well, who are the targets? Who are they — who are they working on, and who’s doing the work?

JULIE ROVNER: Well, the speaker and certainly the House leadership is doing the work, and I think everyone is the target.

They need, as we heard in the piece, 216 votes. There are four vacancies in the House. Basically, there are a lot of members who have a lot of doubts about voting for the Senate bill. And, of course, the House must first approve the Senate bill, before they can go on to that second bill that has the fixes in it.

There are a lot of members — liberals don’t like that Senate bill. It doesn’t have a public option in it, which, as the speaker said, people really, really wanted. There are conservatives who still don’t like the Senate bill. Both anti-abortion members and pro-choice members don’t like the Senate bill. It was cast with this compromise that really both sides didn’t like.

So, there’s a lot, from the House Democrats’ point of view, to really be hated in that Senate bill. So, the speaker has to work on everyone to get them to come around. And, frankly, the House Democrats don’t trust the Senate Democrats at this point to pass that second bill.

JIM LEHRER: Is there — there was a report at one time that some of the House Democrats were going to demand that — that a majority of the Senate Democrats say, hey, we will pass this if, in fact, you will pass it first. And they wanted it in writing.

Is that still alive?

JULIE ROVNER: I don’t know that they’re going to demand it in writing, but, yes, there was a lot of that. That’s how deep this distrust has gotten, that the — the House is so — the House Democrats are so distrustful of the Senate Democrats.

After all, the House has sent so many bills to the Senate this year that the Senate has been unable to act on. Remember, there have been so many filibusters in the Senate by the Republicans, so many things that the Senate has been unable to do, that the House is worried that they may end up passing the Senate bill, and that will be the only thing that becomes law, that they won’t be able to get — even without the chance of a filibuster, that the Senate won’t be able to act on this second bill.

JIM LEHRER: So, they get a double hit, then, politically. They vote for something they’re not that comfortable with, and then it doesn’t pass anyhow.

JULIE ROVNER: That’s — well, no. If the House votes for the Senate bill, the Senate bill becomes law. It will go straight to the president.

JIM LEHRER: No, I mean — I mean if the Senate then doesn’t pass it.

JULIE ROVNER: That’s right. That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: That’s what I mean. That’s what I meant.

JULIE ROVNER: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: Well, what is the — is there a general sales pitch that Speaker Pelosi has that works for everybody wavering House member, or are they targeted to individuals?

JULIE ROVNER: Well, the general sales pitch, of course, at this point is that something is better than nothing, that — that the House, at this point, having passed a bill, pretty much now is on record, even those who voted no. The House is on record as having voted for this health bill.

If they end up at the end of this year with nothing having become law, then they will be this do-nothing Congress, yet another Congress that tried — that tried and failed to pass a major health overhaul bill, so that what the speaker keeps saying is that, if this bill passes, once the public knows what’s in it and understands what is in it, it will become more popular, even though the polls now say it’s a pretty close split, you know, for and against, with a little bit more on the against side.

When you poll the individual elements of the bill, those individual elements are still fairly popular.

JIM LEHRER: So, the speaker is not going — say, hey, Billy Bob, if you will vote for us on this, we will get you so many paved roads, or — and they’re not making individual deals; is that right?

JULIE ROVNER: Well…

JIM LEHRER: Oh, OK.

JIM LEHRER: None that we know of.

JULIE ROVNER: They can’t make individual bills — deals on this bill, but on — that’s not to say they can’t make individual deal on other bills down the road.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. But to get to 216, the last two or three or four are going to be very, very well-known people when this is all said and done. Is that not the case?

JULIE ROVNER: Well, it certainly was in the Senate. It might not be the case in the House. So far, they have managed to keep this pretty quiet.

But, yes, certainly, on something like this abortion issue, where they’re dealing with five or six fairly well-known people, that may be the case.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the timetable, they say they’re not going to make March 18, which is just a week from today. Forget that. What happened?

JULIE ROVNER: They were never going to make March 18. That was when the president is leaving, and that was something that the president’s spokesman threw out there as, you know, something they wanted to do.

JIM LEHRER: Now, he’s going to — to Thailand and Australia and wherever, yes.

JULIE ROVNER: The real — the real deadline that they would like to make is when they leave for their — their spring break, which is the following week. And that’s possible. No one is quite saying that it’s likely, but I think that’s a possibility.

That’s what they’re working towards, perhaps unveil this bill as soon as tomorrow. There’s talk of getting it to the House Budget Committee and the House Rules Committee, the two committees that have to act, early next week, perhaps a vote in the House as early as next weekend, so, eight or nine days from today, giving the Senate another week to act. That would be optimistic, but I think possible.

JIM LEHRER: OK. We will see what happens.

Julie, thank you again.