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Congress Reacts to President Obama’s Speech

September 10, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Judy Woodruff speaks with members of Congress about their responses to President Obama's address.

JIM LEHRER: And now how the president’s speech and last night’s reaction — we test that inside the Capitol with looks to — as we look to members of Congress today. And to Judy Woodruff for that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And for that, we do turn to Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota; Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee; Representative Lynn Woolsey, a Democrat from California, she’s also co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in the House; and Representative Charles Boustany of Louisiana, he gave the Republican response to the president’s speech last night.

Thank you all four for being with us.

I’m going start with you, Representative — I’m sorry, Senator Klobuchar. The president’s speech, what did you make of it? What did you make of the substance of it?

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR, D-Minn.: You know, what I liked about the speech is, he wasn’t talking to the four of us that are on your show right now. He was really talking to the people of this country. He was reaching out to America and really giving a blueprint of how he thought we could get this health care plan done and what it meant.

And I think there’s been so many myths out there, so much anger, some of which you saw boil up right there in the House chamber, but he was very clear in what he wanted to do, that he wanted to get stability and specifically got a standing ovation by nearly everyone in that chamber about this idea that you shouldn’t have to drop your coverage and have no coverage just because your kid gets sick, so we can get rid of the pre-existing condition rules and set some clear rules on insurance companies.

And he also methodically went through how we are going to be able to cover more people. And at the same time what I really liked about it, being from Minnesota, the home of the Mayo Clinic, he laid out his concerns about costs and affordability. That is the number-one thing I heard at the Minnesota State Fair for the past two weeks, that people want to focus on that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Corker, did it change your mind?

SEN. BOB CORKER, R-Tenn.: No, it didn’t. I’ve been, you know, really involved in the details of what’s been put forth.

I actually had a different view of the speech. And the speech, again, was just an episode. We do have some tough work here to get done, and I agree that there are issues regarding pre-existing conditions, the ability of people to be able to buy affordable health insurance, tax code changes, cross-state competition. There’s so much that I think overlap both Democrat and Republican concepts that I think we could move those ahead, and I hope we’ll focus on that.

But I thought the speech actually was more like a — sort of a primary speech in Iowa to sort of bring his base together. I did e-mail over this morning to the chief of staff and to the person handling the health care policy for the White House to ask for the details, because I actually left there last night with more questions than answers. There were a lot of platitudes.

The details of health care are very, very important. And the American public is very tuned into this. And, again, I just thought there were details that were missing. That doesn’t mean we can’t get there.

I felt also last night, Judy, that in some ways the train was leaving the station. I felt like — hopefully this is not the case, but the stage was being set for a more partisan piece of legislation than the way we’ve been working together in the past.

Obama gives marching orders

Rep. Lynn Woolsey
I felt that the president gave the Congress -- the House and the Senate -- gave us back our marching orders and told us what he wants to have in the health care reform plan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Representative Woolsey, is that how you saw it, as a partisan speech, more platitudes and few details?

REP. LYNN WOOLSEY, D-Calif.: Well, actually, I saw it as very positive and clear and concise. And I felt that the president gave the Congress -- the House and the Senate -- gave us back our marching orders and told us what he wants to have in the health care reform plan.

I was happy that he maintained the public option. And although it wasn't defined, I felt like he lobbed that ball to the progressives, and he didn't say it out loud, but I heard him saying it in my heart of hearts, "All right, progressives, define what is a robust public option, and let's see if we can get it in there."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I want to ask you about that in a minute, but I do want to turn to Representative Boustany for now. You did give the Republican response last night, Congressman Boustany. And among other things, you said you oppose a government-run health care.

But we heard the president in the speech say, "I hope my Republican friends, rather than making wild claims about government-run health care, will sit down and have a conversation, a real discussion about this." What did you make of that?

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY, R-La: Well, you know, Judy, as a doctor on the House Ways and Means Committee, when we had the markup of the bill, there was specific information in that bill.

And I had many, many questions about the government option and how it would work. How would physician networks be built out? What happens if those physician networks are not successfully put in place? The financing structure of this, there were some unanswered questions there.

And so the problem we have is, we have a bill that's been written that we could very well be voting on in the full House of Representatives shortly which is faulty. There are a number of problems with it. And the president's speech was more lofty; it was in general principle terms. He didn't get into enough specifics. He really didn't give us anything new.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and let me come back to you, Senator Klobuchar, on that. I'm getting two completely different pictures from the four of you. Did you hear anything from the president that cut through what your understanding was and what you think your fellow members' of the Senate understanding of what the president wants?

Reaching across the aisle

Sen. Bob Corker
So what I'd like to say is, look, it was a speech. I think he probably accomplished what he wanted to accomplish. I want us to solve this problem. And I think Amy Klobuchar and us and myself agree on many, many things.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR: I did. I mean, I heard, first of all, that the president did reach out to Republicans on a number of things. He said, for those who are just here to obstruct, I'm not going to work with you. But for those that want to work with me and have ideas, I want to listen.

That focus on affordability and costs that we've been hearing time and time really from citizens all over this country, I believe that's something that Republicans, at least in the past, have said they cared about, and I hope they care about it now, because Medicare is going to go in the red by 2017.

We have seniors who are 55 years old that should be concerned about that, and we have seniors who are 65 that want to live until they're 95 and need to have Medicare. And we need to make it more efficient, and I like that focus of the president.

He also is willing to talk about a malpractice reform, something that we've heard a lot about from the Republican Party. And I think in general he signaled that he was willing to compromise and work with people on a plan that worked for America.

He talked about how we shouldn't be fearing the future, that we should be working to shape the future. And that is with all of the citizens that I've heard, the backpack company up in northern Minnesota, a guy paying $24,000 a year for his family of four, he said he wouldn't have even started the company 15 years ago if he knew that that would happen.

The family that shows up at our meetings and says that his wife died, he's got his three kids there, and that he's still paying for the long-term care for his wife...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me...

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR: ... I mean, it's just unbelievable stories that people around -- that every elected official has heard and the president was basically saying, "Let's work together and get this done."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Corker, what about those statements the president made that appeared to be a gesture to Republicans, saying he was willing to consider a look at malpractice reform, limiting malpractice claims. He talked about Senator McCain's idea of the high-risk pools. And he said that he's willing to consider alternatives to the public option.

SEN. BOB CORKER: Well, look, I know the White House knows -- we've had numerous conversations that all of those issues we've been talking about are things that I'd like to solve. I'm obviously not supportive of a government option.

I know we're spending a lot of time on the speech, and I think it's timely that we are, because it occurred last night. But I actually sort of want to move on, and I want to look at the details of what he talked about.

As I mentioned earlier, the devil is in the details. And some of the financing schemes, Judy -- and I say that, I mean, these are things that Republicans and Democrats have been looking at on the Finance Committee -- but they're just not sustainable, things like using 10 years' worth of revenues and 7 years' worth of cost. That just doesn't add up. Looking at things like taking $410 billion in Medicare savings away from Medicare and moving it into another program, when Medicare itself is insolvent through the year 2017.

So what I'd like to say is, look, it was a speech. I think he probably accomplished what he wanted to accomplish. I want us to solve this problem. And I think Amy Klobuchar and us and myself agree on many, many things.

So I'd like to move down the road and see the text to see the actual concepts that accomplish those things that he laid out last night. And I've asked for that from the White House today. I hope to get it very, very soon. I hope that there are things that are very tangible that we'll be talking about in our next meeting.

GOP fiscal concerns

Rep. Charles Boustany
The problem is, we didn't really hear anything last night from the president on what it's going to take to truly cut costs in health care without sacrificing quality.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me move over to the House again, to Representative Woolsey. What about the cost question, Representative, that Senator Corker just raised, that the president said last night this would not add to the deficit? But the senator's saying the revenue numbers are different from the cost numbers. How do you see -- do you think it adds up?

REP. LYNN WOOLSEY: Well, I think it adds up. And actually what adds up is what we -- what it will cost us not to do this. And, you know, when we cost out our programs, we don't get to throw in the savings that come along with preventive medicine, and being involved with mothers before their children are born, and what we do for children and their health care and all of that. None of that is costed in -- added in -- subtracted out of the cost. It's ridiculous.

But with the public plan, we will save money by at least $78 billion, and that's what this has to be all about. It has to be saving money, it has to be adding competition to the private health insurers, and it has to be providing security for those who already are covered by their health care.

You know, people are covered. They say they're fairly satisfied with their coverage. I sometimes doubt that. But they're all feeling insecure that they could lose their coverage at any time. So we have to protect them, too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Representative Woolsey, very quick answer to this question. You've said before the speech you would not support legislation if it didn't have the public option. Do you still feel that way?

REP. LYNN WOOLSEY: I still feel that way, and I have great confidence that I'm not going to be faced with that dilemma.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Well, and to you -- and to you again, Congressman Boustany, on this cost question, what is it that you would look for from the White House to reassure you, I mean, on top of what the president said last night?

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY: You know, Judy, I was involved with cost-cutting measures in a very expensive part of medicine, cardiovascular surgery, for 20 years. And I actually did cut costs in our hospital and worked hard on quality issues. It's tough, and it takes a lot of work.

And the problem is, we didn't really hear anything last night from the president on what it's going to take to truly cut costs in health care without sacrificing quality. And H.R. 3200, the House bill, also fails in that regard.

You have to look at the doctor-patient relationship. And it's doctors' behavior and patients' behavior. On doctors' behavior, there are a number of cost drivers. It's defensive medicine. It's the inequities in the reimbursement structure that oftentimes certain payers don't meet cost, including Medicare and Medicaid in particular.

But on the patient side, it's all the wellness and behavioral issues that would really cut costs, if people lost weight, they adhered to a good diet, cut out smoking, and things of that nature.

And it's the doctor-patient relationship where that's all coming to a focus. And the bill falls short on that, and the president's ideas fall short so far.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to save time, because I want to ask all four of you about what was said last night by Congressman Joe Wilson when he said to the president, "You lie." What was your reaction, Congresswoman Woolsey, when you heard that? And what do you think it says about what's going on right now in the Congress?

REP. LYNN WOOLSEY: Well, I was struck. I mean, I was -- I couldn't believe it. This is unprecedented.

And, you know, Congressman Dingell, who's our dean in the House, has been there 50 years, he has never, ever heard anything like that. And what it says is there's a lack of respect in some quarters for the institution and possibly for our president.

Reflections on Wilson's remark

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
My first reaction was I felt like I was in the beer garden in the Minnesota State Fair.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Boustany, he's a colleague of yours in the House. How do you explain it? What does it say about the atmosphere in the body?

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY: Well, first of all, it was wrong, and Congressman Wilson recognized that immediately and issued a thorough apology to President Obama. The president has accepted his apology.

Let's get beyond that. It was a heat of the emotion. Let's get beyond it. Let's work on health care. We have some big issues that we need to work on. We need to have a civil, open, substantive debate on health care that the American people will be comfortable with, and that has not happened so far.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And let me come back to the Senate side on this question. Congresswoman -- I'm sorry, Senator Klobuchar, your reaction, and what does it say? What's to stop the American people from thinking that Congress is just hopelessly divided when they see something like this?

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR: Well, my first reaction was I felt like I was in the beer garden in the Minnesota State Fair. I like it there, but it just didn't have the place, when you're dealing with the president of the United States, who just last Sunday, Laura Bush, former first lady, talked about how everyone needs to respect the president of the United States.

And I have gotten a different sense when I've come back. I've gotten a different sense from the people of my state, as the weeks of August wore on, and this is that there is consensus developing. It's a consensus around stability. People want that. They don't want to lose their coverage. Consensus around value and affordability, and a consensus around choice of doctors. And I believe the president laid out a plan that can bring us there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Corker, quickly to you on this same question.

SEN. BOB CORKER: Look, it was wrong and certainly out of protocol. He made a mistake; I think he realized that very quickly, and he apologized. I think all of us were shocked when we heard something like that coming out.

But I wouldn't want to say this is a theme. There were 535 people invited to sit there last night. Most of them were there. I think all of us respect greatly the office of president. I think all of us know that, when we act in ways that are not civil, we destroy those things that bind us together.

And so, look, I agree with Amy. Let's move on with trying to focus on legislation that is pragmatic, will stand the test of time. Let's don't let an incident or a speech be the deciding factor in this. Let's focus on the substance. Let's make sure we get it right, and let's make sure we do no harm to the best health care delivery system in the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Corker, Senator Klobuchar, Representative Woolsey, Representative Boustany, thank you all.

JIM LEHRER: There's more reaction to the president's speech on our Web site, There are links to local coverage from our PBS colleagues, a rundown on how bloggers have reacted, and you can get some historical perspective, as well, from NewsHour regular Richard Norton Smith.