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Republicans Take Aim at Health Reform Reconciliation Bill

March 23, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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President Barack Obama signed the landmark health care reform bill into law today, as the Senate began debate on its companion measure. Jim Lehrer talks to Arizona Republican Jon Kyl about efforts to stall the final stage of health care's passage and challenges to its constitutionality.
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JIM LEHRER: This was a day of triumph for the president and his party, as the sweeping health reform bill was signed into law.

Ray Suarez begins our coverage.

RAY SUAREZ: Democrats descended on the White House this morning to watch history made.

RAY SUAREZ: Jubilant cheers greeted President Obama and Vice President Biden as they entered the East Room. The cheering continued after nearly every sentence the president spoke.

He said the bill signing marked a new season for America.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, after almost a century of trying, today, after over a year of debate, today, after all the votes have been tallied, health insurance reform becomes law in the United States of America.

BARACK OBAMA: Today.

RAY SUAREZ: The president also acknowledged the labors of decades, and especially this past year, to arrive at this day.

BARACK OBAMA: It’s easy to succumb to the sense of cynicism about what’s possible in this country.

But, today, we are affirming that essential truth, a truth every generation is called to rediscover for itself: that we are not a nation that scales back its aspirations. We are not a nation that falls prey to doubt or mistrust.

RAY SUAREZ: With that, Mr. Obama signed the most extensive change in domestic policy since the 1960s. It’s designed to extend medical coverage to more than 32 million uninsured Americans.

But, almost immediately, the attorney general of Florida and more than a dozen others filed lawsuits, charging, the new law is unconstitutional.

BILL MCCOLLUM, Florida attorney general: The freedoms of Americans, and particularly in my state of Florida, were impaired by this bill. And it forces people to do something in the sense of buying a health care policy, or pay a penalty, a tax or a fine, that, simply, the Constitution does not allow Congress to do.

RAY SUAREZ: And, on CBS, the Republican national chairman, Michael Steele, called for ousting Democrats from power, including the speaker of the House.

MICHAEL STEELE, chairman, Republican National Committee: As Nancy Pelosi is the architect of the demise, in my view, of one-sixth of our economy, she should be fired for her failure to — to serve the interests of the American people.

RAY SUAREZ: The president took on the critics in his second event of the day, a speech to health care reform advocates.

BARACK OBAMA: I heard one of the Republican leaders say this was going to be Armageddon. Well, you know, two months from now, six months from now, you can check it out. We will look around.

BARACK OBAMA: And we will see.

BARACK OBAMA: You don’t have to take my word for it.

RAY SUAREZ: Back at the Capitol, the Senate began debating a House bill containing fixes to the new health reform law.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev., majority leader: We’re going to move forward and make a good law we just passed, signed by the president today, even better.

RAY SUAREZ: It was unclear how long that will take. Republicans warned, they’re not giving up the fight.

SEN. JUDD GREGG, R-N.H.: What we intend to do is to offer a series of substantive amendments, the purpose of which is to try to correct some of the fundamental flaws. I know we can’t fix it, really, because it’s such a terrible bill.

RAY SUAREZ: In the meantime, the president travels to Iowa City, Iowa, on Thursday to begin selling the benefits of the new law.

JIM LEHRER: Now a further Republican leadership perspective on what has happened.

Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona is the minority whip of the Senate. And he joins us now from the Capitol.

Senator, welcome.

SEN. JON KYL, R-Ariz., minority whip: Thank you. Good evening.

JIM LEHRER: One of the things that Senator — that President Obama said today was that the rhetoric of health care reform has now been replaced by the reality of reform. Do you see it that way?

SEN. JON KYL: I think that both will continue, when the reality of the cost of this legislation sinks in, the fact that insurance premiums aren’t going down, they’re going to go up, that tax increases of a massive amount will be needed to pay for it, that student loans are now being taken over by the federal government as a way to help pay for health care reform, the cuts in Medicaid — Medicare, rather.

Those kinds of realities, I think, will sink in over time. And I think you will hear a lot more rhetoric, especially as the election approaches, talking about what I think is a very serious matter. I know the president was laughing, and there was a lot of cheering. There weren’t any Republican legislators in that ceremony today, because this was done on a purely partisan basis, with the slimmest of margins.

And that’s not the way that this kind of historic legislation, as he called it, should be passed. So, I — I think there will be both reality and rhetoric.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

In the — in the immediate future, Senator, what are you and your fellow and sister Republican senators going to be doing these next few days in this fixes — so-called fixes debate that goes on?

SEN. JON KYL: Right.

We have already laid down a couple of amendments. For example, my colleague John McCain just laid down an amendment to get rid of some of the special deals that are in the bill. Now, Republicans have been saying all along we have got some better ideas. Democrats haven’t taken them so far.

And I would be surprised if they start taking our ideas now. But we will offer amendments. We hope that our colleagues on the Democratic side would support us.

But, in any event, we will have an opportunity to talk about some of the things that we would like to have seen done in the legislation in the amendments that we offer. And if any of them are accepted, or if there are points of order that are upheld against the bill, then the bill will have to go back to the House of Representatives for one final vote.

But I suspect that, by the end of the week, roughly, this so-called fix-it bill will end up being passed as well.

JIM LEHRER: So, you think there will be — there is, in fact — from your point of view, there is, in fact, a health care reform bill now, the law of the land, right?

SEN. JON KYL: Yes, indeed. The president signed it today.

JIM LEHRER: And, so, what — what happens the next few days is just a delaying formality?

SEN. JON KYL: No, no.

JIM LEHRER: No?

SEN. JON KYL: No, no, it’s a — no, this is the process the Democrats chose, remember, the reconciliation process.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

SEN. JON KYL: We didn’t choose it.

What they intend to do here is to amend portions of the bill that they just passed. Nancy Pelosi said of the bill the president signed today, nobody wants to vote for that. There is a lot wrong with it. There is still a lot wrong with it. And there will still be a lot wrong with it after the so-called fix-it bill has been passed. And I assume that it will be passed.

But the process this week in the Senate is to adopt the — the reconciliation bill that attempts to fix…

JIM LEHRER: OK.

SEN. JON KYL: … some of the things that are wrong in the bill the president signed today.

JIM LEHRER: Now, moving on, do you support the — the new calls to repeal the bill that just — the president has just signed today?

SEN. JON KYL: Our view is that we should repeal and replace the bill with the solutions that we think actually work. Obviously, the president will not sign a repeal bill that the Congress passes, so that’s more of a symbol.

But we do think that, over time, both in the reconciliation process this week and then in the ensuing weeks, that we can offer amendments to this new law that will perhaps address some of the very specific concerns the American people have had about the bill, and, in that sense, begin to change it, eventually repealing big — big pieces of it.

JIM LEHRER: But you’re not — just to make sure that I’m clear, I have got you clear here, you’re not in favor of a massive attempt to repeal the whole bill right now?

SEN. JON KYL: Oh, I would love to see the bill repealed right now. The problem is…

JIM LEHRER: Sure, but, I mean, you’re not — yes.

SEN. JON KYL: No, Barack Obama is president. He would never sign a repeal law. We don’t have the votes to get it passed right now. We’re not going to waste our time on that.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

What about the — the lawsuits filed today by the state attorneys general? Do you support that, to — to repeal the bill or to…

SEN. JON KYL: Sure.

There have been a lot of very serious constitutional scholars opine about portions of the bill, portions of the bill’s constitutionality. I don’t know whether those arguments are valid or not. But I do think that they deserve to be aired in — aired out in court. And I think it’s a good thing, therefore, that these lawsuits will settle the issue, one way or the other.

JIM LEHRER: Senator, as you know — much has been made of this — that, through history, recent history in particular, Republicans have opposed things like Social Security, Medicare, even civil rights legislation, but then, once they lost, they took some deep breaths and moved on, and then finally ended up embracing many of these major changes in — in laws and in the way we do business here.

Is that going to happen with health care reform?

SEN. JON KYL: Jim, could I argue a little with the premise of your question?

JIM LEHRER: All right. OK. Sure.

SEN. JON KYL: The civil rights legislation was pushed by Republicans, as you will recall. It was the Southern Democrats who filibustered it, who fought against it.

The last…

JIM LEHRER: Excuse me. I was just thinking specifically of Senator Barry Goldwater, a colleague of yours in — in — from Arizona, who did oppose — I’m not saying all Republicans. I didn’t mean to suggest all Republicans.

SEN. JON KYL: No, I think there were…

JIM LEHRER: OK.

SEN. JON KYL: The civil rights legislation was a truly bipartisan, historic bipartisan action.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

SEN. JON KYL: And the last major Medicare reform, namely the Part D Medicare benefit for the drug benefit for seniors, that was a Republican piece of legislation that got bipartisan support from Democrats as well. But that was a Republican initiative.

But, to your question…

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

SEN. JON KYL: … it is true that, when an entitlement begins to be enjoyed by people, they like to keep it.

And one of the Democratic leaders in the House said, oh, we dare the Republicans to try to wake — take away these benefits once the people have begun to enjoy them. I — I think that’s really part of what’s behind this, get the people dependent on the United States government for everything having to do with health care, even in the private sector, and we will have people dependent on the government and dependent upon us for political support.

That is a scary thing in this country. We have been — we have relied in the past on the very sacred relationship between patient and doctor. I want to save that. And this legislation could insert bureaucrats in between me and my doctor. I don’t like that.

And, so, that’s why there will be efforts to repeal many of the aspects of this legislation as time goes on. Some are not bad. I’m not arguing that everything about the bill is bad…

JIM LEHRER: OK.

SEN. JON KYL: … or that we will try to repeal it all. But some of the worst things about it, and particularly those things that end up rationing care, we are going to fight until — until we get them changed.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

Senator, your — finally, your colleague from Arizona in the Senate now, Senator John McCain, has said that, because of what the Democrats did in passing health care reform, Republicans are not going to cooperate with Democrats anymore on any other legislation from here to go. Do you agree with the senator on that? Are you going to support that?

SEN. JON KYL: Well, on the major things, like — that the president has talked about doing, like immigration reform, for example, something Senator McCain…

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

SEN. JON KYL: … and I have worked on before, it’s going to be very, very hard to get bipartisan consensus on those things that we used to have, to some extent. And, so, I think, in that sense, John McCain is right.

Now, the truth — and I know John would agree with this, too — every day, particularly on regional matters and other things, where there is less partisan politics, there will be cooperation between House and Senate Republicans and Democrats, as there always is.

But there’s no question that the procedure that was used here and ramming this through, when the American people still oppose this about 60-40, according to a poll just two days ago from CNN, I think that it will be much more difficult to get bipartisan action on big legislation.

JIM LEHRER: So, the — the — the gridlock or the — that’s not the word. You can — you tell me what — how would you describe the relationship in the United States Senate now between the two parties about things that matter?

SEN. JON KYL: Well, it’s — it’s become — one person used the word poisonous. I would use the word political. I know you think it’s always political here.

SEN. JON KYL: But — but it’s more partisan at an earlier point in the year, just March now, than ever.

Yes, we have an election in November. Usually, things start to get pretty partisan in about, oh, July or so. But now it just seems that everything is, which party can get the advantage over the other? Both parties are into that right now. Obviously, in my party, we say the Democrats started it first with their tactics to ram this bill through, over the objection of the American people.

But, in any event, that — that kind of partisan atmosphere today is going to make it very difficult to get the energy legislation, immigration, some of the other things that the president has talked about.

JIM LEHRER: Are the American people going to enjoy watching this happen?

SEN. JON KYL: You know, they really didn’t enjoy seeing the process here. And I think that’s one of the reasons they are so angry. It’s why you see the Tea Party movement. It’s why you see the very low numbers of approval for the Congress by the American people.

They don’t — they didn’t like what they saw here. And they really didn’t, I believe — I firmly believe this, Jim — they really don’t like the fact that they spoke clearly to us: We don’t want this bill.

Only 20 percent believe it will — or 19 percent believe that they will be better off. Most of them, 73 percent, said, stop, or stop and start over. And they don’t like the fact that the elites in Washington said: No, we know better. Believe us. You will like it once you have it. And we’re going to ram it through, over your objections.

That’s what they really don’t like.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Kyl, thank you very much.

SEN. JON KYL: Thank you, Jim.