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Axelrod ‘Confident’ on Health Reform Prospects in Senate

December 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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President Obama is facing major challenges in the next 48 hours, including opposition to climate change and health care reform legislation. White House senior adviser David Axelrod speaks with Jim Lehrer about those obstacles.
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SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev., majority leader: Madam President, we are going to finish this health care bill before we leave here for the holidays.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: A self-imposed Christmas deadline loomed over Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid today and his Democratic ranks. But, despite his insistence, it was not clear they will make it. That’s partly because President Obama is hearing more from those on the political left, who accuse him of giving up on key reforms like the government-funded public option.

HOWARD DEAN, former Democratic National Committee chairman: I think, at this point, the bill does more harm than good.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Former Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean is now urging Democrats to scrap the current bill and start over.

HOWARD DEAN: The fine print in this bill allows the insurance companies to charge you three times as much if you’re older than they do if you’re younger. This is an insurance company’s dream, this bill. And I think it’s gone too far.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The politically powerful Service Employees International Union voiced its deep disappointment with concessions made on health care reform.

And, today, in an open letter to his 2.1 million members, president Andy Stern said: “Our challenge to the president, to the Senate, and to the House of Representatives is to fight, remember what health insurance reform is all about, and fight like hell to deliver real and meaningful reform.”

Meanwhile, new polls this week show public support for the Democrats’ health care reform plan at an all-time low, falling to 32 percent in the latest NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll. At a time when Harry Reid is trying to muster 60 votes to pass the bill, those numbers are not helpful.

SEN. BEN NELSON, D-Neb.: It’s a fact that the issue of abortion stirs very strong emotions.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson, one of the last holdouts, is still insisting on tighter restrictions on abortion coverage, as he told a Nebraska radio station today.

SEN. BEN NELSON: As it is right now, without further modifications, it — it isn’t sufficient. There is a lot improvement on the legislation, but the basic question about funding of abortion has not been fully answered yet.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And Republicans have stepped up their efforts to block the bill, using every procedural tool they can.

SEN. TOM COBURN, R-Okla.: I would offer unanimous consent.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The debate came to a standstill for a time yesterday, when Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn forced Senate clerks to start reading a 767-page Democratic amendment.

CLERK: Section 2006, presentation of prescription drug benefit.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The proposal was eventually pulled. But Coburn has threatened the same tactic when the final version of the bill, roughly 2,000 pages, comes to the floor. The Republican goal? to make Democrats give up and start over.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: There’s a chance, there’s a chance that we could stop this, start, beginning in January. We would all be willing to come back, sit down together, negotiate, with the C-SPAN cameras, with the C-SPAN cameras, as the president said, committed that he would do as — as the — a candidate. And we would sit down together, here, at the White House, anywhere, and fix this system.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So far, though, Majority Leader Reid shows no signs of giving in. And there are rumblings the Senate may spend long nights debating between now and Christmas to force a final vote.

JIM LEHRER: Health care reform is one of two major challenges facing President Obama over the next 48 hours. The other is climate change, of course.

David Axelrod is the president’s senior adviser. I spoke with him late this afternoon from the White House Briefing Room.

David Axelrod, welcome.

Is health care reform now in serious jeopardy in the Senate?

DAVID AXELROD: No, I think we — we are where we were, Jim.

We have got strong support in the Senate for health insurance reform. We have got a minority of senators who want to keep that from coming up for a vote on the Senate floor. And we’re working to put together the 60 votes that we need to bring it to the floor. And I’m confident that we’re going to get them.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Ben Nelson, as you know, said today that he has renewed reservations about what is in that bill because of the abortion issue. He’s one of the 60 you’re counting on. What do you think of that?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, look, there are many issues that have been raised by him and others. We are going to work our way through those issues.

Again, I’m confident that we’re going to get — get this done, and in a way that will — will hold a coalition together.

JIM LEHRER: What do you make of this rising opposition among liberal Democrats, particularly led by former Democrat Chairman Howard Dean?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, look, I think that a lot of people have a great deal of passion about this issue. I have a great deal of passion about it myself.

I have someone in my family with a chronic illness. And I have had many of the horrific experiences with insurance that other Americans have had. And I feel strongly about this. And so does the president. So, you know, people are impassioned. And there are some disagreements about aspects of this — of this plan.

But there is absolutely no doubt that the reforms that we’re working on will be infinitely better than the situation that we face today. People will be able to get insurance that they can afford, even if they don’t get it through work. Small businesses will get tax credits, and they will be able to provide health care to people.

There will be protections for people who have preexisting conditions. You won’t be able to get thrown off your insurance just because you become seriously ill. There will be caps on out-of-pocket expenses, so you won’t go bankrupt if you get seriously ill.

These are reforms that are long overdue, and we’re so close to getting it done. I agree with President Clinton, who said today that it would be a tremendous blunter to miss this opportunity, and it probably won’t come around again.

JIM LEHRER: What do you make, then, of the public opinion polls, at least, showing a diminishment and growing drop in support for health care reform? If all these things you say are true, why is — what is the public not understanding?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, it’s an interesting — that’s an interesting question, Jim, because what you find is that, if you ask people how do you feel about the bill that is going through Congress, you get a negative — a negative reaction.

If you tell them what’s in the bill, then you get a healthy majority for the bill. And I think, you know, the legislative process isn’t always an attractive thing. And it tends to focus on areas of contention.

The things that I have mentioned, I think, are broadly supported by the American people. They want it. They know we need it. And when they hear that that’s in the bill, they support the bill. I have no doubt that, once this bill is passed and implemented, the American people will appreciate it. And it’s going to improve the lives of people across this country who are struggling in this health care system today.

JIM LEHRER: You’re not concerned about — or Andrew Kohut, for instance, the distinguished pollster, says his reading of the polls is that the real drop in support is among liberal Democrats, the people you would expect to be supporting the most health care reform.

DAVID AXELROD: Well, look, there — there’s been some contention over some issues. The president was — supported the idea of a public option within the health insurance exchange, and felt that would be a good idea.

There — that didn’t prevail. We weren’t able to cobble together the support we needed for that. But that was just a piece of a large package of reforms. And when you measure what we have lost against what we would gain, there’s absolutely no doubt that — that people would — would — that this is a very progressive piece of legislation that would make this country fairer, that would help people in their relationships with their insurance companies, give them some leverage, put the consumer in charge, and would help bend the curve on costs, on premiums for people, on the costs for government, absolutely essential.

All of these things will be achieved if we get this done. And I think the American people will appreciate it once we get it done.

JIM LEHRER: You’re obviously monitoring all of this. Is the idea of having all this done in the Senate by Christmas, which is just a week away, is that no longer on the table?

DAVID AXELROD: No, we’re — we’re working hard to try and get that done. The other side is working hard to stop that by putting up procedural barriers.

Understand that there’s a majority in the Senate that is ready to pass this bill. There’s a minority that wants to thwart the opportunity for the bill to come up for a vote.

I think, whether you’re for or against this bill, after all these months of debate, thorough, thoughtful debate, it’s time to allow a vote to come to the floor. And that’s really what the — the argument is right now. It’s not even about the bill itself. It’s about whether we’re going to have a vote on the bill.

JIM LEHRER: If there’s no vote by — by Christmas, is this a serious setback for the legislation generally?

DAVID AXELROD: Let me say this. I spoke with the president this afternoon.

We expect that we will have a vote before the holiday. But there is no length to which — of time — there’s no statute that’s going to run in terms of getting this done for the American people. We are going to get this done for the American people, because it is the last — it is best chance we have had.

Seven presidents have tried to reform this health insurance system. Seven presidents have failed. We have been struggling with it for 100 years. We are closer now. We are right on the doorstep of getting it done. We are going to get it done.

JIM LEHRER: The president’s going to be at Copenhagen in the morning at the climate conference. What does he come to say and do?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, our hope is — we are very committed to clean — investments in clean energy. Obviously climate change is a real and perilous challenge, not just for the U.S., but the world.

We want to address that. We are — but we are also committed to creating a clean energy industry in this country that will create jobs, will create energy — more energy independence. So, we’re pursuing that road.

But we want the world to join together. That’s the most effective way to deal with climate change. And we’re hoping to come out of Copenhagen with an agreement that — that is verifiable, in other words, an agreement on which we can all have assurance that countries are meeting the domestic goals that they set for themselves. And the president’s going to talk to his fellow heads of state to see if we can achieve that.

JIM LEHRER: What if you can’t?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, look, we’re going to pursue our goals regardless. We are committed to making that transition to a clean energy economy.

So, it — but it would be — and we will pursue in the future global agreements. But this is an opportunity and — to try and get this done. And we’re hopeful that other countries, including China, will be just as committed to getting it done.

JIM LEHRER: Has the president had direct contact with the Chinese leadership going into Copenhagen about this?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, you know, Jim, he’s talked about this with — with the Chinese leadership several times over the course of this year.

Secretary Clinton is in Copenhagen now. She met with the Chinese prime minister — premier today. And the president will be meeting with him tomorrow. And we hope that we can get — we made some progress in our previous talks. We have to get over the hump in terms of — of being able to demonstrate to the world that we’re all meeting our obligations under whatever agreement we make.

And that’s been a bit of a hurdle, but we — we hope to — we hope to deal with it.

JIM LEHRER: If there is no agreement, is the summit a failure?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, I don’t think so. I think that we have made progress there. It’s not as — it hasn’t come as — as easily as anyone would like. These are difficult issues. But — but, whatever happens there, there will undoubtedly be more work to do.

I think fact that the world is really focused as intensely as it is on this issue, that there’s a recognition that we have to act, and that the — the impact of not acting will be dramatic and devastating over a long period of time for the — for the world, I think, is a positive thing.

But we want — we want tangible, specific domestic goals that each country can agree to. They’re not all going to be the same, because countries are different. Some are developed. Some are not. But we all have to pitch in and — and meet our common obligations. And that’s what the president is going to say. And that’s what I hope we will do.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, Mr. Axelrod, does the president still maintain his support for Ben Bernanke to have a second term as chairman of the Federal Reserve?

DAVID AXELROD: Absolutely, Jim.

When you consider where we were a year ago, on the doorstep of financial collapse that could have ushered in a second Great Depression, and you consider the indefatigable efforts of Chairman Bernanke, he deserves a second term. The president — that’s why the president nominated him and he continues to support him.

JIM LEHRER: All right. David Axelrod, thank you very much.

DAVID AXELROD: OK. Good to be with you.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.