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Shields, Brooks Consider Reconciliation’s Future

February 26, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks sort through the top political stories of the past week, including President Obama's health reform summit and how the political parties are weighing potential gains and drawbacks from Democrats using budget reconciliation to pass reform.
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JIM LEHRER: And now to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

OK, Mark, is there going to be reconciliation or not?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: David, is there going to be reconciliation or not?

DAVID BROOKS: In the moral sense or the legislative sense? There will be…

JIM LEHRER: In the legislative sense.

DAVID BROOKS: There will be legislative, which is the opposite of moral reconciliation.

JIM LEHRER: The opposite of moral…

MARK SHIELDS: David obviously has just come out of the closet as an anti-majoritarian…

MARK SHIELDS: … a majority vote in the Senate. I think…

JIM LEHRER: You think it is going to happen.

MARK SHIELDS: It is going to happen.

The Democrats have concluded, reluctantly, but I think logically, that there are no Republican votes that can be won for support of the health care bill. I mean, there’s nothing they can do at this point to win Republican votes.

JIM LEHRER: So, that pretty — you mean the summit pretty much demonstrated that?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the summit did.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. So, they — if it is going to pass, it has to go — there is no choice but to go reconciliation?

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. That’s exactly right.

JIM LEHRER: You agree with that, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: If any — if it is going to happen, it has got to go this — this route?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

And this is a piece of pure hypocrisy for both sides. Whoever is in the minority hates reconciliation. And there’s — somebody has put together on the Internet a group of quotations from Obama and Clinton and Biden, when the Republicans were in the majority, and they wanted to change the rules on the Senate filibuster on the judicial nominees, which is not quite the same.

But, nonetheless, you have Obama saying, we just can’t have majoritarianism in the Senate. That is not how this was built, and then Clinton and then Biden. So, whichever is in the minority are complete hypocrites on this subject.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Let’s go through what the plus and minuses are — for the Democrats. If the Democrats go ahead with reconciliation, and let’s say they get it by 51 votes, is that — is it — is it worth that to get it done?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, it is, Jim, because all of the — it was interesting, listening to the setup piece.

Lamar Alexander immediately in his opening, which I thought was good — he is a very impressive guy, former governor of Tennessee — immediately went to the procedure, the process. John McCain wanted to talk about how these deals were cut in the dark, which they were, I mean, and the deal with the pharmaceuticals and the deal with the insurance companies. Yes, they were. And they weren’t on C-SPAN.

But what — what the Democrats have to get to — and the president understands this — is they have got to get to the product. They have got to say, this is what we are doing, not how we got there, how it was achieved.

And they can’t sell the process. They can’t win on trying to convince people the process has been transparent, has been something that Common Cause would endorse, or anything of the sort. They have to get this passed.

And failure to pass it…

JIM LEHRER: Is worse.

MARK SHIELDS: … is worse for the Democrats. I think that is what the Democrats have concluded. And I think that is what yesterday was about, was the president trying to galvanize Democrats on that issue.

JIM LEHRER: You see it the same way?

DAVID BROOKS: No.

JIM LEHRER: It’s either that way or no way for…

DAVID BROOKS: No. No. If I were the Democrats looking at it politically…

JIM LEHRER: OK. Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: … I would go to what has been described as the plan B, which is to cover maybe 15 million extra people for a quarter of the price.

I think what’s going to happen is…

JIM LEHRER: You think the Republicans would go along with something like that?

DAVID BROOKS: No. No.

JIM LEHRER: No. Oh. Oh, OK. All right.

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, it’s possible, but I wouldn’t think that even so.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. OK.

DAVID BROOKS: But the Republicans are ecstatic that they are going to do reconciliation. In their view, what is going to happen is, you are going to have another three months on health care, and not on jobs. You are going to have — go through a very ugly process.

And the odds are still very high that the Democrats will get nothing. So, the Republicans think this is great for them. They think it will cause 20 or 30 House Democrats to cast votes which will cost them their — their jobs. And that’s really the — the evaluation that both sides are making. Both sides think reconciliation will be good for them. And that’s more or less why it’s going forward.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it that way, too, that the…

MARK SHIELDS: No.

JIM LEHRER: You don’t?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t, with great respect for David.

JIM LEHRER: Noted. Noted.

MARK SHIELDS: The idea — the idea that you go through all of this effort — Bill Bradley is a former senator from New Jersey who knows something about reform, having been the author and principal architect of tax reform in 1986, Ronald Reagan’s great domestic achievement of his second term.

JIM LEHRER: Bill Bradley was a Democrat.

MARK SHIELDS: Bill Bradley was a Democrat. And it was a — to me, it was a signal achievement.

He said, it takes just as many meetings, just as much anguish, just as much trouble, time and travail for a small reform as for a big reform. So, make the big reform. If you are going to go put in all that time, effort and energy, and — and all that political cost, go for the big — go for the big reform.

That’s why — they argued at the time, why don’t you just go for smaller chunks of change in the tax code?

No, he said, I’m going to change the law.

And I think that’s where the Democrats are now. And I think that’s — that’s what is important.

JIM LEHRER: And the president made that pretty clear yesterday, didn’t he?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: There’s not going to be any step-by-step thing.

DAVID BROOKS: No. That seems clear.

But this is — this bill right now is more unpopular than Clintoncare was when it went down. So, it’s — it’s politically very unpopular. And the difficulty, frankly, is not in the Senate, with reconciliation. The difficulty is in the House. They can’t get a simple majority in the House to vote for that. They are well short of that now.

And they could be well short. That is where the real challenge is. And then, to me, and for those of us who care about the substance, in order to pass something, they’re gutting what I think is some of the most important parts of the legislation.

Earlier in the week, the president announced his package. And that package basically guts this thing called the excise tax, the tax on the so-called Cadillac plans, the high-cost plans. And that is tremendously important. What they are going to do is push that back until 2018, and then water it down.

That’s important, because this tax was the single biggest cost-cutting, bending-the-curve procedure in the whole bill. Second, it is a long-term revenue source to pay for all this. In the second decade, it would raise $954 billion.

That is at least extremely watered down, probably gutted, because a Congress in 2018 is not to going to exceed to a tax hike that this Congress doesn’t have the guts to pass right now.

And, so, to me, you have just sucked the guts out of parts of the bill that — the revenue and bending the cost curve, all in an effort to get something, anything passed.

MARK SHIELDS: I think this was the — the central debate yesterday. It was about price and cost.

And I — price and cost are enormously important. And — but the president kept coming back — and the Democrats did as well — over and over to people who aren’t covered. And he said…

JIM LEHRER: Yes. That was the president. He said that about 50 times.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: He did.

And — but I think that — I think that really is the cleavage here. Is it the cost — is it the cost? It is the price, which is considerable. I mean, it doesn’t begin to approach in cost or price what President Bush’s tax cuts did on reconciliation, which were twice as large as this.

But it is — it is — that remains a sticking point. It’s tough in the House right now, because not only have you lost three members, Jack Murtha’s death, Bob Wexler’s retire — resignation to leave the House, voluntarily, from Florida, and Neil Abercrombie, all three votes for the bill who are — who’s leaving to run for governor of Hawaii next week.

So, you have got to find new support.

JIM LEHRER: David, let me ask you this.

What is your reading as to why that — the president’s point, the one he kept going back to, that what this is really about is getting everybody insured, because, if we don’t do that, then we will never get control of health care, because it will — people will — people will still be going to emergency rooms, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Right.

JIM LEHRER: Why is that debate not ever engaged?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, that’s — well, because the Republicans only want to insure three million more people in their plan.

JIM LEHRER: But why? But why? Why is that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think they focus on the cost. And, frankly, it is because the Republicans, I think, do not have a solution to that.

But, when the president started this — this bill, there were two elements. There was the coverage of the 30 million or 44 million, whatever it is, which is a moral necessity. But, remember, he led off with the costs. When he started this, the cost issue was number one.

DAVID BROOKS: And, frankly, politically, that’s where most people are concerned about. We can’t afford these premiums, which are doubling every 15 years or so. And he has — he has reduced to one argument, because he essentially has no solution to the cost problem.

To me, if we’re going to get it passed, we have to do them both together. You can’t just do the — the dessert, which is the good part that people want to spend money on, to cover the uninsured, without actually controlling the structure, or else the country goes bankrupt.

MARK SHIELDS: It isn’t — it isn’t just the dessert, by any means. I mean, David cites the polls.

I mean, up until yesterday, with all due respect to the president, we didn’t know where the president was. I mean, the president did something very important yesterday. He established ownership of this. This had always been Democrats in Congress vs. Republicans in Congress, the House and the Senate.

Yesterday, it became…

JIM LEHRER: You guys work it out.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Yesterday, it became President Barack Obama.

And — and I think, to say the polls, the polls show that people don’t accept the status quo. They do not — they think the present system is broken. They are worried about it. They know that they can get knocked off insurance, that they can get banned for life tomorrow.

But the plan that had they have been polled on has been one that has been caricatured, that has not been presented well by the Democrats. The White House never — never made a compelling statement.

I mean, yesterday, I thought the president made a compelling presentation. I would love to see a sample poll of — polling of the people who watched yesterday with any kind of a remotely open mind. I mean, I just thought he was persuasive.

JIM LEHRER: Just, finally, what did you think of the event itself, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I liked the event quite a great deal. I thought it — you saw real expertise in the room, Republican and Democratic side.

I thought Obama was great at leading discussion. The Republicans came back, and they had a bunch of doctors and a bunch of experts showing real expertise. There were exchanges that actually got you somewhere.

There was an — early on, Alexander, Lamar Alexander, said to the president, you’ve raised our premium — your plan would raise premiums 13 percent.

Obama comes back and says, but that’s not — that’s not fair. I’m offering much higher coverage for that 13 percent.

And then Jon Kyl of Arizona comes back and says, but should — you are offering that coverage. You are mandating that coverage. Shouldn’t people have a choice?

And then that leads to a discussion of how much government should mandate. And that is actually like a real discussion, and quite substantive. And, so, I loved that part. I mean, it was sort of playacting, because, the next day, it is all as if it never happened. But I loved the one day of fantasy.

JIM LEHRER: One day of fantasy?

MARK SHIELDS: No, a couple of good things about it.

The president was criticized by some people, scholars on the presidency, who said, you know, that sitting at the same table wasn’t a good idea, you know, that, somehow, this makes the president just one of the people — one of these group.

And I thought the table worked, Jim. It worked the same way that we saw it work in the vice presidential debates with Dick Cheney against John Edwards and Joe Lieberman. The Cheney people insisted in those debates they sit at tables.

Now, partly, it was because of the vice president standing for 90 minutes and all the rest of it. But you know, at a table, you are going to be more conversational and less confrontational.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And there was — it was substantive and it was civil.

I mean, the big winner yesterday was really Washington. I mean, if people tuned in, they said, this is a thoughtful, serious discussion going on.

And I really thought, in that sense, it was — it was enormously helpful. It took a lot of the bombast and the bile. I mean, that is what people get with the negative commercials out of Washington and some of the viral videos.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think, if somebody watched it all, they now understand what the differences are, that there are real differences, and here are what they are?

DAVID BROOKS: I think that was laid out. You know, both parties agree on the problem. The Democrats think you solve the problem with a set of rules to rationalize the system.

The Republicans think you solve the problem by creating a market with empowered consumers, so you get a free market competition to bring down costs and to provide coverage. So, that’s two different approaches. And I think you saw that.

JIM LEHRER: You agree?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I do. I thought that the president was persuasive.

But I do think the difference there — and the difference of priority — I mean, covering the uninsured. And the uninsured don’t have any political clout. Let’s get that straight. I mean, it was — it is not like they have got their big political action committee…

JIM LEHRER: The people who…

MARK SHIELDS: .. large checkbooks.

JIM LEHRER: The people who have the big constituency are the people who are afraid they are going to lose what they have…

MARK SHIELDS: That’s exactly right.

JIM LEHRER: … not the people who don’t have anything.

MARK SHIELDS: Exactly.

JIM LEHRER: Right. And that’s what it all — yes. Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: It should be said, the Republicans do believe, if you bring down costs…

JIM LEHRER: Then everybody…

DAVID BROOKS: … then you do expand coverage, because the thing driving people out of insurance programs is, just the costs are just going up and up and up.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes. Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: The only way you are going to do it is to get everybody in. That is the only way you’re going to keep the costs down.

JIM LEHRER: Well, the only people we have tonight are just the two of you, so we’re just going to have to leave it there.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you.