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Grassley Outlines Obstacles Facing Health Care in Senate

August 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Any overhaul of the nation's health care system will depend on draft legislation from the influential Senate Finance Committee. In an interview with Judy Woodruff, Sen. Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the committee, discusses the challenges facing reform.

GWEN IFILL: The Senate push for a bipartisan approach to health care reform has involved a running series of closed-door meetings involving lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Judy Woodruff goes behind the closed door.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It is six members of the Senate Finance Committee who’ve been conducting those meetings, the only place where Democrats and Republicans are still negotiating with each other over health care.

Since in the past two weeks, we’ve heard both the president and the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, make the case here on the NewsHour for reform from the Democrats’ point of view, tonight we get the views of the senior Republican sitting in those sessions, Charles Grassley of Iowa. He joins us from Capitol Hill.

Senator Grassley, thank you for talking with us.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY, R-Iowa: Well, I’m glad to be with you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Since it’s been announced that your group is not going to be reaching an agreement before the Senate goes into August recess, just how far apart are you? How wide is the gap?

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Well, it’s pretty hard to quantify, but I think we’re all committed to making sure that it gets done right. You’ve got to understand that artificial timelines just don’t work when you’re dealing with life-and-death issues, and that’s what health care is about.

And when you’re dealing with one-sixth of the economy, it needs to be done carefully and cautiously and done right. And that’s what we’re all committed to doing, and we work at it a little bit every day, and we want it done right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator, you made it pretty clear you’re against the public option, the government plan to provide insurance to those people who don’t have it. Now, how strongly do you feel? Are you basically saying under no circumstances a public plan?

No Need for a Government Run Plan

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Well, first of all, the public plan you're talking about is just one step towards a government takeover of our health care system, and I'm not going to go along with anything that rations health care. What we've got to do is make sure that people that don't have health care have health care.

So as long as our principles are to make sure that everybody's covered, and it's affordable, and we do away with the discrimination that comes from pre-existing conditions, and we make it possible through community rating, so that people can afford health insurance, then you see the intellectual argument for a government-run plan is out the window. It's not needed when you adopt the principles that we're adopting.

And we're going to provide this through the private health insurance system so that people have choices. People don't want one plan. They want choices. And they ought to have choice. And that's where we're headed, and that's why we don't want a government takeover of health care.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So do you think President Obama is -- when he says he doesn't believe that a public plan would lead to a government takeover, do you think he's being deliberately misleading? Do you think he's naive? I mean, how do you explain that?

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Well, he hasn't studied the reports and the think-tank papers that are out there that says, when you have a government-run plan -- because the government is not a fair competitor. It's not a competitor. The government is a predator.

And when you have a predator out there, Lewin, the think-tank that we quote most often, says 120 million people are going to opt out. Well, those 120 million people then aren't going to be able to have what the president promised them they could have.

If they want to keep the insurance that they have, they ought to be able to keep it. And that's the principle that I'm for, and we need to stick by these basic principles.

And I don't agree with much that the president proposed during the last election. But when he said that people ought to be able to keep the insurance they have, I think I agree with him, and that's where we're headed. And a government-run health insurance program would detract from that very definitely.

Maintaining U.S. Standards

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator, you said a minute ago you didn't want to see something that would lead to rationing of health care. Some would argue -- many would argue -- we already have rationing, in that insurance companies make decisions about the care people can receive, the care people receive is based on what kind of coverage their employer provides them.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Well, OK. Well, let's see -- at least today, if you don't like the insurance company you have, you can go get another insurance company. You're not stuck like they are in England.

I heard a member of the European Parliament speak today to some of us in the Congress, and he spoke about the shortcomings of the British health care system. And he says, if you don't want to have delay and denial of care, you can go buy private health insurance. And the 10 percent of the people that are richest that don't want to stand in line forever, then they buy it. But the government-run program's got 1.4 million employees over there, and half of them are bureaucrats.

We don't want to do that in the United States. We've got a good health care system. We want to keep it. We want to come up with the shortcomings.

So you're saying that people can't get care. Well, you can change or, in the case where you can't afford it or you're discriminated against, we're going to solve that problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator, just a couple of quick questions. One is, another alternative that's been discussed is the so-called cooperative, which would be another way of providing health coverage for those who don't have it. Is that something that you would consider?

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Oh, of course I would. If they want to do it the way that we've known co-ops operating in the private sector, not run by the federal government, and our -- all of their existence to the consumers that use them, the consumer members, I think promoting that kind of competition is the very best kind of competition.

Looking for a Bipartisan Solution

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator, two things on getting something passed or not. The president is now saying over the last day or so that, as much as he wants a bipartisan solution, as hard as he's worked for it, that if he can't get the most important elements, he would be prepared to go in another direction, in other words, to go with a Democratic-only solution. Do you think he's worked hard enough for a bipartisan solution?

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: I think that he's torn between two camps. He wants a good health care system. He'd like to have it be bipartisan, but he's got so many people in his political party, as evidenced by a vote in the Senate Health Committee, when a majority of the Democrats voted for a Canadian-style single-payer, he's got so many people that are torn the other direction that he's got to satisfy both camps, and it's difficult to do.

I think what we all have to do is accept certain principles and live by those principles, and principles can't be compromised.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One other thing, Senator. We are seeing a number of reports lately about citizens and some organized groups showing up in different congressional districts angry, accusatory, raising the temperature, and, in some cases, some ugly scenes out there around the country, and the expectation is this may get worse over the month of August. Do you worry that that sort of thing could make agreement here in Washington impossible?

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: No, not at all. Listen, what we're doing here in Washington to redirect the health care system so more people get served, so we don't have a government takeover, so that we cut costs, and not have more deficit spending, those are good principles.

And if we do those things and they don't meet the test of grassroots public opinion in America -- remember, this is a democracy -- we shouldn't be doing them anyway.

So I'm going to have 20 of these meetings throughout the state of Iowa. I invite Iowans to come in, and I want to listen to their opinions. I want to answer their questions.

And if what we're talking about doing -- and I'm against the Pelosi bill. I'm against the Kennedy bill. I hope I can be for a bipartisan bill. I won't know until we get it developed. But if I can't defend that, then we shouldn't be doing it, or any plan, the Pelosi plan or the Kennedy plan or the Obama plan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Charles Grassley, we appreciate your answering our questions. Thank you so much.