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After Obama’s Summit, Any Minds or Votes Changed?

February 25, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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President Barack Obama clashed with Republicans over the merits of health care reform legislation during a televised summit Thursday. Judy Woodruff talks to health and policy reporters about whether the summit will move health legislation forward.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We take a reporters’ look now at how the day played out, both in terms of politics and whether any common ground on policy was reached.

With us are two who watched the proceedings closely, Ceci Connolly, national health policy correspondent for The Washington Post, and Karen Tumulty, national political correspondent for “TIME” magazine.

Thank you both for being with us.

And I have to say, I have a bit of a news update. And that is, after the summit broke up, about an hour ago, in Washington, the Democratic leader, Harry Reid, came out and said it’s time to do something, we’re going to do it, sounding fairly discouraged.

And the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, came out and said he was discouraged, and he’s renewing the call that they start all over again.

So, having said that, Karen Tumulty, what do you make of this day?

KAREN TUMULTY, national political correspondent, TIME: Well, I think that it was pretty clear that no minds were changed, no votes were changed.

And there was a lot of discussion about process, which I think probably most Americans could care less about. But what the two sides did, I thought, a really good job at was, as the president kept saying over and over again, spelling out their philosophical differences.

The Democrats have one approach for improving the health care system that involves a big role of government in setting — in part, in setting some standards as to who gets covered, what people’s responsibilities should be, what health insurance should look at.

The Republicans’ idea is that the best way to improve the system is to essentially let people go out and use the forces of competition to shop for themselves, find out for themselves what is the best — best kind of health care for themselves.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Ceci Connolly, did we learn anything today? I mean, these were principles that both sides have been talking about for months.

CECI CONNOLLY, health policy reporter, The Washington Post: Well, absolutely, Judy.

And I’m sure, if you haven’t been following this closely for the past year, as some of us, unfortunately, have been, it could have been fairly edifying. I mean, I have to say that it was a fairly substantive conversation for a full day. As Karen pointed out, we really got a good introduction — more than an introduction, really — of the different philosophical approaches to something like this.

But there wasn’t any news that came out of today’s conversation. And what really struck me about the gathering was that, if it had taken place, say, in June of 2009, maybe nine months ago or something like that, it could have had a very meaningful impact on the process.

But this sort of thing generally happens at the beginning, not at the end. And, so, it was very difficult to imagine, after all of this talk and the back-and-forth for a full day, what would be the logical next step to happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, given that, Karen Tumulty, did the White House get what it wanted out of this?

KAREN TUMULTY: I think what the White House wanted to do was to be able to turn to the country, where public opinion polls, as the Republicans kept reminding us over and over again, suggest that people are really turning away from this health care plan, it’s losing support, they want to be able to turn to the country and say, look, we took our last shot with the Republicans, and now, as Harry Reid said in the — in the aftermath, and now we’re going to get this thing done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As both of you are saying, I watched as much as I could. And it was a remarkable exchange for six hours.

But — but, given what both of you are saying at the same time, Ceci, was this — was this something that moved the ball along? Was there more…

JUDY WOODRUFF: I don’t hear either one of you saying there was any more agreement. So, did it just cement both sides in — in the positions they were already in?

CECI CONNOLLY: Well, or, Judy, to use the favorite term at the Obama White House, you know, was it a game-changer?

I don’t really think so. There’s nothing to suggest that. The one important group that we will need to take the temperature of in the next couple of hours and days — and I think President Obama, at the very end, kind of obliquely referenced this — and that is the swing Democrats in the House in particular, because, if President Obama is now going to somehow get this piece of legislation through Congress, it is probably going to come down to a critical few dozen House Democrats who are wavering, who are maybe in tough congressional districts back home, not certain whether or not they want to cast this vote again.

It was very difficult for Speaker Pelosi to get her 218 votes the first time around in November. She’s got to do some very difficult soul-searching with her members now about whether or not they want to cast another vote like that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Karen, if — if — whether it’s wavering Democrats or others who were listening, what would they have heard today that might have tilted them, say, in the president’s favor?

KAREN TUMULTY: I think absolutely nothing today.

The most important development of the week, I think, is the one that speaks to what Ceci was talking about. And that was when the president put out his own plan earlier this week. This was designed to take the Senate bill and make some relatively minor changes, particularly in the financing, in ways that would appeal to some of these House Democrats and bring them aboard.

And that, I think, was — was, in many ways, the more crucial development.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There were a number of interesting back — backs-and-forth. And I just want to touch on one, and that is this question of whether premiums are going to go up.

Karen, you were just saying…

KAREN TUMULTY: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … you know, we had a clear difference of opinion among this — this group today on that.

KAREN TUMULTY: Yes.

And, in this case, if you listened — this was the first sort of exchange we had like this — it came in the first hour between Senator Lamar Alexander and the president, as to what this bill would do to health insurance premiums, which has been a big subject in the news in the past few days.

And they were both right, if you parsed their sentences. Basically, Senator Lamar Alexander was talking about the Congressional Budget Office’s study of what would happen to health insurance premiums in the individual market. This is the 9 percent or 10 percent of the population that has to go out and buy their own health insurance because they don’t get it from their employers.

CBO says their premiums would go up, but, because they get so much additional assistance, their costs would go down. As for the rest of us who are lucky enough to get our health insurance where we work, the CBO says, as the president pointed out, that, in fact, our premiums are likely to stay the same or go down.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Were there any other substantive exchanges, Ceci, that you think would sway those Democrats who have got to make up their mind in the next few days?

CECI CONNOLLY: Well, I don’t know, again, if it was a particular exchange in the summit. I would point to a couple of things, though, Judy.

One, again, as Karen was pointing out about that 11-page document that the White House released at the beginning of the week, it largely represents the compromises that were struck between the House and Senate versions of the legislation.

If you are a centrist Democrat in the House who was not thrilled with the House version of the bill, there’s reason to think that those individuals might like this 11-page compromise proposal from the president a little bit better, in part because of some of what it does around tax exclusion for insurance coverage, some different tweaks that were made kind of inching over in the direction of the Senate bill that — that could be attractive to them.

The other thing, as Karen’s pointing out, with health care, it’s so complex, and it’s possible for lots of people to say different things and kind of be right. And you showed the exchange earlier about: “We have the best health care in the world. “No, we don’t.”

Well, they’re both kind of right. The thing with health care in the United States right now is that it widely varies. And, so, it is possible to have absolutely the best cutting-edge medicine in the world right here in the United States. But there are also a lot of people that don’t get any care or get really subpar care, and are not being treated for some of the most basic things in this country. They’re not getting bang for their health care buck.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, politically, Karen Tumulty, it does look like the Democrats are going to go for reconciliation. This is a 51-vote procedure in the Senate. Is that something that the Democrats are pleased to be doing?

KAREN TUMULTY: Oh, they are not pleased to be doing it this way. But what they want more than anything else is to get past the process, get past all the ugliness and the fighting and arguing over parliamentary procedure, and get this thing passed, so that they can move on to actually selling the product.

And while the polls are going against them now, they believe that, once this thing is passed, that they will be able to convince their constituents that it was a good thing to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what are the challenges, quickly, Ceci, that they face in doing this?

CECI CONNOLLY: Well, there are any number of parliamentary challenges that await them trying to do that process that you referred to known as reconciliation.

Yes, it only requires 51 votes, but there are all sorts of rules about the fact that it’s supposed to be items that relate to the budget and to the deficit. There will be all kinds of arguments. You may have to have Vice President Biden sitting in the chair ruling for hours, if not days. So, it will not be an easy process, by any means.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A remarkable event today at the — at the Blair House.

Ceci Connolly, Karen Tumulty, thank you both.

CECI CONNOLLY: Thank you.

KAREN TUMULTY: Thank you.