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Newsmaker: Speaker Pelosi on Finishing Health Care’s Uphill Climb

March 24, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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After Sunday's historic vote on health care reforms in the House, Jim Lehrer talks to Speaker Nancy Pelosi about finding enough votes to pass President Obama's signature domestic issue.
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JIM LEHRER: And now to our interview with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

I spoke with her this afternoon at the Capitol.

Madam Speaker, welcome.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif., speaker of the house: My pleasure.

Welcome to the Capitol.

JIM LEHRER: Well, thank you.

Do you see the way you did health care reform as a model for enacting major legislation?

REP. NANCY PELOSI: I see the way we did health care reform as a model of getting something done for the American people. It is — we reached for bipartisanship. We tried to find common ground.

But, if we can’t, that doesn’t mean we don’t go forward. It’s urgent for the American people in terms of their personal health, their personal finances. It’s urgent for the American people in general, as taxpayers, because we will save $1.3 trillion, as we improve quality, lower costs, expand access, and hold the insurance companies accountable.

JIM LEHRER: But the bottom line was, you have a very thin vote margin, no Republican votes, and a sharply divided public. And you still did it.

REP. NANCY PELOSI: Right. Well, that’s a tribute to my colleagues, that they had the courage of their convictions, that they believed that this is an historic opportunity to do something great, sitting right up there with Social Security, Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, health care for all Americans.

And, again, the president tried for one solid year, from March of the last year, with his first summit at the White House, until the summit he had this year, to enlist the Republicans to put forth their ideas.

And I think what emerged was, is that the Republicans just will not regulate the insurance companies, and the Democrats will. And that was the major difference. And, if you can’t come to terms on that, then you just have to decide whether to proceed or not. We decided to proceed.

JIM LEHRER: You said a few days ago — quote — “If the gate is closed, we will go over the — over the fence. If the fence is too high, we will pole-vault in.”

JIM LEHRER: “If that doesn’t work, we will parachute in. But we are going to get health care reform passed.”

Is that kind of a definition of what you would call the Pelosi way to operate?

REP. NANCY PELOSI: Well, nonethe — the point is, I knew that my — I had faith in my colleagues that we would get this job done.

But, in case you’re wondering, we went through the gate. All of us together pushed that gate open for the American people. And now we have health care with innovation, with wellness, and — and prevention, about using new technologies and more investments in science to make American healthier. It’s not just about health care. It’s about health, good health for the American people.

JIM LEHRER: Are you concerned at all about the historic record for these kinds of sweeping pieces of legislation?

For instance, Social Security creation, Medicare creation, civil rights legislation, all of those passed by considerable margins and in a bipartisan — with bipartisan support, and — but health care, no. Not a problem?

REP. NANCY PELOSI: Well, let’s review the history. Let’s go back to Medicare. It’s the most recent example — example.

Medicare wasn’t — didn’t have the strong bipartisan vote on the vote that really mattered. This is inside baseball, but the motion to recommit is always — that’s when the Republicans had their chance to change the bill. The Republican motion to recommit on Medicare was to gut Medicare. And only about a dozen — or a few more — Republicans voted to support Medicare.

On final passage, after that was resolved, yes, many more Republicans joined in. But the fact is, the fight was over whether Medicare would be what it is — you know, what it set out to be. And, so, it wasn’t as bipartisan as — as others are describing now.

REP. NANCY PELOSI: It was a very tough fight. I have the voting sheet from Medicare. I see it every step of the way. And it was instructive to me.

JIM LEHRER: What’s your own analysis of why the Congress is so sharply divided by party right now?

REP. NANCY PELOSI: Well, we have differences of opinion. Such has always been the case in our history, starting from the second term of George Washington, the states’ rights, federalists. Different points of view have always been competitive. And that’s what our founders intended.

This is the marketplace of ideas, where people bring their ideas. They debate, argue, compete, and someone prevails. The — unfortunately, now, when we’re trying to make this real change on health care reform, and some people are still very unhappy about the results of the last election, and we have joblessness in our country that we are continuing to address, you have a combination of forces that is fertile for some of the fear-mongering that is going on.

But the fact is, is that we’re on a path. This is — this bill, this health care bill, is a jobs bill. It will create four million jobs. It’s part of the president’s fuller agenda in his budget, to lower taxes, reduce the deficit, and to grow the economy in a stabilized way around three pillars, investments in education, health care, energy/climate change.

Two of those pillars are addressed in this legislation. It’s about change. It’s about something fresh and new. And it’s about saying to the special interest insurance companies, no longer will you be — come between patients and their doctors. No longer will the American people have to play on your turf.

It’s time for you to play on the turf of the American people. So, again, depending on what your view of is the role of government, you exploit your point of view. And the Republicans have exploited the position of the insurance companies and been very effective in — in hijacking some of the legitimate concerns of the American people against this legislation.

But I feel very confident the more people know about the legislation — and that’s already coming forth. The polls have definitely made a swing in terms of supporting the legislation.

JIM LEHRER: So, you do not believe — or do you believe that under — underlying all of this, it is a basic of this division between Republicans and Democrats right now? Is it basic division over philosophy, over political philosophy?

REP. NANCY PELOSI: I do.

JIM LEHRER: You do?

REP. NANCY PELOSI: I do. I think, to give the Republicans credit, they vote what they believe. And they do not believe in regulating the insurance companies.

JIM LEHRER: And that’s what — it’s about the insurance companies?

REP. NANCY PELOSI: I believe that…

JIM LEHRER: It doesn’t go any deeper than that?

REP. NANCY PELOSI: Well, it’s about regulating insurance companies and the role of government in doing so.

Now, they opposed, by and large, Medicare. Even to this day, you know — you talk about the vote at the time. In the course of the debate in the last decade, the Republicans have said Medicare should wither on the vine — wither on the vine.

Take it right up to real time right now. The Republican budget is to privatize Social Security, to give a voucher for Medicare, give a voucher to seniors, and have them be left to their own resources as they go out to the marketplace, and to block grant Medicaid, which is the beginning of the end of Medicaid.

So, this isn’t even historic. This is current. This is their budget. This is a big difference between Democrats and Republicans.

JIM LEHRER: You talk about governing. Essentially, what we have now, is it not correct to say that we have a one-party government? Are you comfortable with that?

REP. NANCY PELOSI: Well, we — we, again, reach out for bipartisanship. No one has been more of an advocate for bipartisanship than the president of the United States.

For one solid year, from the start of his — from his inauguration, until just a few weeks ago, on this subject of health care, he has tried to get — to listen, to incorporate ideas. And let me say this. This legislation may not have bipartisan support, but it has bipartisan imprint.

There are over 200 amendments, between the House and the Senate, that the Republicans advanced that are in this legislation. So, the fact that, before the president even went to see the Republicans in the House, when he became president, they said, whatever he asks for, the answer is no.

So, again, that — you — let — bipartisanship is — is — is a wonderful way, if we — if we can achieve it. And we have on many, many, many pieces of legislation. On this particular issue, we do not. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have it.

Bipartisanship is not more important than a little child who is sick, being deprived of coverage because he has a preexisting condition. It’s not more important that women can stop being — just being a woman is no longer a preexisting medical condition, that — that, if you lose your job, you lose your insurance, that, if you want to start a business or be self-employed or change jobs, you’re not job-locked, that the insurance companies don’t have it over your head that they can insurance — increase your rates, and you’re at their mercy.

That’s more important than getting a few Republican votes, although the president strove — was — tried very hard to do so. And I respect that.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of — picking up on your line, losing your job, it’s been — how do you feel about the suggestion that this vote on health care reform could lead to the loss of the majority in the House of Representatives, and, thus, your losing your position as speaker of the House?

REP. NANCY PELOSI: I have said, if passing this bill means I have to walk out of my office that night, it would be with the greatest pride.

But I don’t any intention of losing the Democratic majority. It’s too important to the country. It’s too important to the lives of the American people. We are there for them. And the president has said, we will measure our success by the progress being made in America for America’s working families.

I believe that this is what we came here to do. We didn’t come here to self-perpetuate ourselves in office. We came here to make a difference in the public’s life. Now we have to go out there and — and tell people what is in the legislation. I have confidence that my members can do that.

And, again, I wear two hats, by day, a speaker of the House, and, by evening, making sure that we have a strong Democratic majority.

JIM LEHRER: The person who would replace you as speaker if it did become Republican, John Boehner, said this, finally, about you. He said — he talked about what a strong House speaker you are, and then he said — quote — “So, you pass a very unpopular bill. You shove it down the throats of the American people, and you lose your majority. How good is that? How smart is that?”

REP. NANCY PELOSI: What is smart is to do what the American people need.

This is historic. President Obama has done what other presidents over 100 years could — did not succeed in doing, although they all recognized that it was important. So, this is — this is about striving to find your common ground. That’s our responsibility. But, if you don’t find it, you must stand your ground for the American people. And good policy, we hope, will be good politics.

But we did what we came to do. We are public servants. We have it inside of us to do the right thing for the American people. And that’s why — why I always had confidence that we would pass this historic legislation to make progress for the American people.

JIM LEHRER: Madam Speaker, thank you very much.

REP. NANCY PELOSI: Thank you. My pleasure.