transcript

Feb
26
2010

MS. IFILL: You want to know what really happened at the big health care summit, whether the economy is turning the corner, if your Toyota is safe? We’ll answer your questions tonight on “Washington Week.”

REP. JOE BARTON (R-TX): Never have so many members of the House and Senate behaved so well for so long before so many television cameras.

MS. IFILL: They did behave well, but they did not agree.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): The solution to that is to put that on the shelf and to start over with a blank piece of paper.

SEN. MAX BAUCUS (D-MT): The gaps in my judgment are not that great.

MS. IFILL: Honest differences of opinion or rank partisanship.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): Both of us during the campaign promised change in Washington.

PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Let me just make this point, John, because we’re not campaigning anymore. The election’s over.

SEN. MCCAIN: I’m reminded of that every day.

MS. IFILL: One almost certain casualty: bipartisanship. But is there room for cross party cooperation on another key issue?

MR. : The yeas are 70. The nays are 28.

MS. IFILL: The Senate passes a jobs bill. And one of the world’s most powerful businessmen receives a congressional scolding.

REP. EDOLPHUS TOWNS (D-NY): If the Camry and the Prius were airplanes, they would be grounded.

MS. IFILL: Trouble at Toyota. Covering the week: Karen Tumulty of “Time” Magazine, John Dickerson of “Slate” Magazine and CBS News, Naftali Bendavid of the “Wall Street Journal,” and David Shepardson of the “Detroit News.”

ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill produced in association with “National Journal.”

(Station announcements.)

ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL: Good evening. Well, it wasn’t Yalta or Reykjavik or Dayton. It wasn’t even the Beer Summit, but Thursday’s health care summit did serve as a turning point of sorts for Democrats and Republicans. Assembled before the cameras around the table in what is essentially President Obama’s guest house, Blair House, Republicans set out to make the case that the health care fix the president proposes would cost too much, do too little, and represents an unacceptable federal intrusion into private health care.

REP. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA): When you start to mandate that everyone in this country have insurance and you lay on top of that now the mandates that we all would like to see in a perfect world, there’re consequences to that. We just can’t afford this.

MS. IFILL: Democrats, including the president, who got the first and the last word, wanted to show that they were willing to be reasonable and bipartisan, but that their approach is the right now.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV): Our Republican friends oppose our legislation and that is your right. But also, it becomes your responsibility to propose ideas for making it better. So if you have a better plan for making health insurance more affordable, let’s hear it. If you have a better plan for making health insurance companies more accountable, let’s face it. Let’s work on it.

MS. IFILL: The president tipped his hand in the end, signaling loud and clear that he is willing to force action on health care reform without Republican support.

PRES. OBAMA: We cannot have another yearlong debate about this. So the question that I’m going to ask myself and I ask all of you is, is there enough serious effort that in a month’s time or a few weeks’ time or six weeks’ time we could actually resolve something. And if we can’t, then I think we’ve got to go ahead and some make decisions, and then that’s what elections are for.

MS. IFILL: Now that sounded like a gauntlet being thrown out. But at the heart of it, Karen, what is at the nub of this debate?

MS. TUMULTY: Well, the president did begin by saying, “let’s talk about the things we agree and see if you can bridge the differences.” But as theses six hours turned into seven hours, what became increasingly apparent is that while they can agree on some provisions of the bill, that the philosophical approaches between the two parties are so different, especially about what the role of government should be, versus what the role of free markets should be, that there is really no common ground here between the two.

And second of all, they are so at odds over whether this is even doable, whether it’s affordable. And at one point, Lamar Alexander said basically, “this is just something that Washington is not even capable of doing.”

MS. IFILL: And is it possible, John, that Washington is also just not capable of really finding that middle ground? Was it even a possibility, a fairy tale thought?

MR. DICKERSON: Well, it was a fairy tale thought, but it wasn’t a real thought. And that the problem is because both sides came in with totally different views about how to proceed. So there were the philosophical differences that Karen talked about, but there’re also these procedural differences. The president wanted to take the bill the Democrats had put together a majority bill – shave off the parts the Republicans don’t like, maybe add in some things the Republicans do like. The Republicans were saying, “no, got to start fresh. And we’ll start fresh.” And if you can’t agree on whether you’re going to take the bus or the car, you can’t reach your destination. And we saw the president get frustrated several times. He would try to build a little pile of sticks of bipartisanship, things they could agree on, and then some Republicans played and were involved in that, but others would come in and say, “no, got to start from scratch.” And all of his little careful work would disappear.

MS. IFILL: I thought – I’m curious what everybody else thought – that it was actually more interesting and substantive than I even expected – maybe it’s because my expectations are now historically so low for things like this in Washington. Was there substance there?

MS. TUMULTY: There was a lot of substance there, I thought. There were a lot of ideas, very specific ideas put on the table. They were all – if you’ve been listening to this debate, as those of us who’ve been paid to do it and have for the last year, none of these sounded like new ideas. But I think anyone who had heard the whole thing play out, they got a sense that neither of these parties are completely lacking in their own ideas.

MR. BENDAVID: So Karen, we’ve now had this daylong seminar, a lot of back and forth, people talking to each other, doesn’t seem like they’ve agreed. So what’s next? Where do we go from here?

MS. TUMULTY: Where we go from here is now – as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, the House speaker and Senate majority leader, left the meeting, they both made it very, very clear. They are going to – they’re all in on this. They are going to push through a large bill, at least do the best they can. So what we’re going to see is the House attempting to pass the Senate bill, and then both houses using this procedure of reconciliation, where you only need 51 votes in the Senate to make some modification in that Senate bill that would really make it more acceptable to the House.

MS. IFILL: Which is where a lot of liberal Democrats have been pushing the Democrats in the Senate to do.

MR. DICKERSON: Right, they wanted them to go with reconciliation from the beginning. And the president didn’t want to do that. But what essentially the reason they have to do reconciliation now is it’s the spoonful of sugar for the House Democrats because since Scott Brown was elected, they can’t pass a bill that represents the best of the House and the best of the Senate. Scott Brown –

MS. IFILL: Scott Brown, the Republican.

MR. DICKERSON: – was elected in the Senate.

MS. IFILL: From Massachusetts.

MR. DICKERSON: So they have to go pass the old Senate bill, as Karen was saying, but in the House they can’t build a majority to pass that old Senate bill. So they have to get this other second bill, and that has to pass through reconciliation, the second bill that will have the fixes that will make health care palatable to the Democrats in the House. Republicans say, you can’t pass a bill that affects 17 percent of the economy using this trick. But in fact, just as a technical matter, the bill that will actually pass – has already indeed passed, passed with 60 votes – the health care bill. What will pass through reconciliation is this second bill, this kind of fixer bill.

MR. SHEPARDSON: John, does this daylong summit – has it unified Democrats and how do they get the remaining votes to get this thing finally passed?

MR. DICKERSON: You hear two different stories. There were – when I talked to strategists involved in races in 2010, trying to get Democrats elected, they wanted the president to come out there and draw some bright lines with Republicans, do a little bit more of “show me your plan.” We heard that clip from Harry Reid saying, you put up or shut up in fact with Republicans. The president didn’t do that much. In fact he kind of bent over backwards to show he was accommodating, to show he was reaching out. John McCain was quite political, talked about how the president hadn’t fulfilled the promises of the campaign. And although Obama got irritated, later in the day he agreed with McCain on something. And then another time, he praised McCain for being principled. So he wasn’t in the heavily partisan mood some Democrats wanted him to be.

Instead, what he seems to have done that may unify Democrats is do everything possible to bend over backwards, so that they ultimately can say, look, we tried to meet Republicans half way. We did everything we could do. And they just weren’t up for it.

MS. IFILL: But, Karen, at the same time, it also struck me that they were – if you’re just watching – you’re a virgin health care of watcher – and you could hear Lamar Alexander make one argument, for instance, about whether premiums go up or down and hear the president disagree with him and not have a clue who’s right.

MS. TUMULTY: That’s right. It was that – by the way, it was the first smack down of the whole summit. This is a question. Are my premiums going to go up or down? That’s what people are wondering because they’re seeing in the news that all these health insurance companies in these states are hiking premiums like crazy. So it was one of these things that if you parsed each of their sentences, you would realize they were talking about two different things. Lamar Alexander was saying the premiums in the individual market would go up, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That is true. The individual market is that 10 percent of Americans who don’t get coverage at work, so they go out and buy policies on their own. What he didn’t say is that most of those people would more than make up for that with the additional help they would get from the government in the form of subsidies. And for those of us who are fortunate enough to get health coverage at work, the Congressional Budget office says that those of us – the 80 percent of us, who do, our premiums are going to stay the same or go down.

MR. DICKERSON: And it just is a political matter, to piggyback on that to your point, Gwen. When people were watching, they see, “gosh, this is complicated.” And everybody is acting in good faith. Let’s maybe slow down. That’s what the polls are saying and that’s the Republican message. And so Democrats – back to your question about whether Democrats are unified – those who wanted to make Republicans look like kind of crazy obstructionists, these kinds of details suggest that, hey, there are legitimate differences. Republicans are trying to go slow. And maybe that’s what we should do.

MR. BENDAVID: But the other thing that Obama did, actually not at the summit, but earlier in the week is he presented his own plan. And I’m just kind of wondering how important it is that finally the president comes out with his idea of what should be in the bill.

MS. IFILL: Which, by the way, was greeted by widespread suspicion by Republicans.

MS. TUMULTY: Yes, but I think that that, in the end, was a far more significant development than the summit in terms of actually getting this bill over the finish line in the House and the Senate because what the president did in his own bill was he took out all the things that have made this bill completely unacceptable to the House, starting with this tax on very expensive health care plans. He got rid of a lot of the special deals, Ben Nelson’s so-called “Cornhusker Kickback” on Medicaid in Nebraska, a lot of the things that have made this bill a lot harder to swallow.

MS. IFILL: Public option, nowhere to be seen.

MS. TUMULTY: Public option, nowhere to be seen. And so this has made it a lot easier for Nancy Pelosi to go to her caucus, which does not trust the Senate on anything at the moment, and say, look, you guys have already voted for this thing once. If there’s any political damage, it’s been done. We’ve got to carry this through to the finish line and convince the American people that we, the Democrats, are capable of governing.

MR. DICKERSON: And going back to that reconciliation point, the reconciliation bill, the second bill will have all of those fixes you’re talking about in it. That’s the little vehicle for it.

One other thing that the Monday announcement did was it put the president’s face on this bill. People hadn’t liked this process when Congress has been in charge of it. And I was talking to a veteran aide on the Hill, who said, we’ve seen Professor Obama in the 7-hour – now, we’re going to have to see President Obama. It now is totally his, this process, this bill. And he’s now got to work it. He’s got to help Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

MS. TUMULTY: It’s true. Until this week, there was no such thing as an Obama health care plan.

MR. BENDAVID: But you wonder why he didn’t do it earlier.

MS. TUMULTY: That’s a very good question.

MR. DICKERSON: He didn’t want to step on Congress’ toes, let them have their prerogatives –

MS. IFILL: And that wasn’t worth so much. Well, incrementalism is now the key, right? This is what he’s also embracing a little bit, even though that big bill is a big bill.

MS. TUMULTY: But over and over again, yesterday, the president made the point that piecemeal reform just won’t work. That you cannot get health – and this is, by the way, something most health care experts and economist will agree with that you really can’t get cost down unless everybody is covered.

MS. IFILL: But politically this is something which is very appealing. Well, let’s move on because incrementalism did work, at least partially later this week on the Hill. At the same time that the smell of stalemate was in the air over at Blair House, there was a modest measure of bipartisanship bond on view on Capitol Hill. It was a $15 billion job creation bill, incremental rather than sweeping. Was it a sign of things to come, Naftali?

MR. BENDAVID: Well, in some ways it was, but we shouldn’t lose sight of how modest it was. First of all, you only had five Republicans out of 41 joining the Democrats on the key vote with that bill. And secondly, the bill was a modest one. Its key provision provided a payroll holiday. If a company hires somebody who’s unemployed, they don’t have to pay that person’s Social Security taxes for the end of the year. And there’re few other provisions would help construction bonds and stuff like that.

So this was not intended to be anything sweeping. On the other hand, it does present sort of a template, I think, for what the Democrats are going to do. They’re going to perhaps present a series of modest bills that are very difficult for Republicans to oppose and so to dare them to stand up against it.

MS. IFILL: Now, this seems like a flip of what we saw in the health care bill in that the Republicans who didn’t vote for this one were unhappy it wasn’t bigger instead of unhappy that it was incremental. Why didn’t – why wasn’t it a slam dunk for everybody to vote for at a time of economic crisis?

MR. BENDAVID: Well, that’s a very good question in that Republicans supported almost everything that was in the bill. They didn’t vote against it because they didn’t like it. What they were upset about is that there at one point was a bigger bill. Harry Reid decided to go with the smaller one. And some Republicans were upset that the bill had been narrowed down or slimmed down in that way.

MS. IFILL: And tax breaks and things like that were taken out of it.

MR. BENDAVID: Were taken out, things that they liked were taken out. That’s right.

MR. DICKERSON: Naftali, one of the people who helped this bill pass was the new senator from Massachusetts. What do you make of his role in his?

MR. BENDAVID: That got a lot of people’s attention. The first Republican from the whole Senate to stand up and say, I’m going to be with the Democrats on this, was Scott Brown. People have been wondering for a couple of weeks what kind of Republican is he going to be? Is he going to be somebody who adheres to the Republican Party line? Is he going to be somebody that the Democrats can work with? And I think what this showed was that he’s going to join Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, the very small number of Republicans that are willing to break ranks and work with the Democrats on some things. And I think that’s one of the more important developments that we saw on the jobs bill actually.

MR. SHEPARDSON: Well how much trouble is this bill in the House? There’s a lot of criticism over the fact that a billion dollars in road funds go – about 60 percent go to four states. Is that going to hold it up or will the Democrats hold their nose and vote for it?

MR. BENDAVID: That’s one of the amazing things. So the Senate finally gets a bipartisan bill and it’s running into trouble in the House among Democrats, not just for the reason you mentioned, but some liberal Democrats think it should be bigger. Some conservative Democrats think it should be paid for in a whole different way. So my hunch is that they’re going to find a way to get it through, but it’s sort of emblematic of the difficulties that Congress is having passing anything, that they finally get a good bill in the House, immediately runs into trouble in the Senate.

MS. TUMULTY: And is this bill actually going to create jobs and if so how soon?

MR. BENDAVID: You know, it’s modest, like we’re saying at the outset. I’ve heard people estimate 250,000 jobs, heard people say a little bit more, at least Democrats say a little bit more. But there’s no question that what the Democrats have decided to go and do here is small ball, is something that they think they can pass, but rather than the sweeping approach they’ve taken to health care, I would say, and energy, they want to do this one step at a time.

MS. IFILL: Except that last night we saw on the Senate another of what you would think would be a slam dunk idea, which was to extend jobless benefits, which are about to expire this weekend, ran up against the wall.

MR. BENDAVID: There’s a senator named Jim Bunning, from Kentucky, Republican senator. And he’s a guy who –

MS. IFILL: A retiring.

MR. BENDAVID: – he’s not running for reelection. He’s also always at odds with his own party leadership. So this is a guy who flies solo, who does his own thing, who has a reputation sometimes for being a little bit eccentric. And he’s holding up this bill because he’s afraid it’s going to add to the deficit. It’s a very popular bill on both sides of the aisle to extend unemployment benefits and it’s maybe one more illustration of the difficulties that the Senate has. It’s complex rules, rules that require 60 votes for some things, that allow one senator to gum up the works in almost anything. Again, they’ll probably get it passed next week, but not without a lot of difficulty, a lot of handwringing, not without making it a lot more complicated than it had to be.

MS. IFILL: I wonder how much of this has to do with crisis, whether there has to be an immediate crisis. We get such conflicting economic information every day. Today, we heard that house sales were down and earlier in the week we heard that overall there was some sort of glimmers of hope, and then we saw the market collapse yesterday. Is that what it is, is that there’s nothing seems so pressing, so emergency that people have to get this stuff done?

MR. BENDAVID: You could think we are in a crisis. The financial system just about collapsed. The economy is struggling along in a terrible way. Everybody agrees that health care really needs to be worked on, but yet they can’t seem to get it together. My sense is just that over the years the rules in the Senate have become more and more ossified. People have hardened in their political and partisan approaches to these things. Until we get to this point now, where I think people are really kind of shocked at how in the face of all these problems that everybody agrees we need action on. They don’t seem able to get it done.

MR. SHEPARDSON: Given that unemployment is still 9.7 percent, shouldn’t we expect more job bills down the road and what are the prospects? And what might those bills have in them?

MR. BENDAVID: I think that’s exactly what the Democrats’ strategy is, is to pass these things a little bit, one vote at a time. That’ll help them. It’ll help them politically over the next three or four months. Every few weeks, they pass another jobs bill. The next one is the one that we were just talking about that Senator Bunning is blocking that will extend unemployment insurance. It’ll extend COBRA health benefits. And after that, they’re talking about things like investing in infrastructure, like helping state and local governments. How many of these things get through, we’ll have to see, but the Democrats love the idea of proposing these things every few weeks, sort of daring the Republicans to say no.

MS. IFILL: And just giving us something more to talk every few weeks. Well, as you can tell, Washington did not lack for political opera this week. Right at the top was Akio Toyoda’s appearance before a House committee, where he sought to defend his family name and the eight million cars his company has been forced to recall. I asked Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about it this week on the “NewsHour.”

(Begin video segment.)

MS. IFILL: Based on what you now know, the thousands of documents which have surfaced the investigation we saw today, the testimony we’ve seen, do you believe that Toyota misled the public?

SEC. RAY LAHOOD: I think that they were safety-deaf. I think they should have been listening. I think Toyota, in Tokyo, should have been listening to their North American people that they hire, who are very good people, very professional people.

(End video segment.)

MS. IFILL: So David, how much – welcome to “Washington Week,” David – how much should the government had known and how much did the government know about Toyota’s problems?

MR. SHEPARDSON: Well, since 2004, there are eight separate investigations into some acceleration claims at Toyota and the only thing the government did was to force to recall 55,000 formats in 2007, very little, very inexpensive. In fact, Toyota bragged about the fact that they saved $100 million plus by only having to recall these 55,000 formats. Then we had this awful accident in August, 2009, the California highway patrol officer that killed four people. And suddenly they agree to now $2 billion fix to recall eight and a half million vehicles. I think it’s clear the government – it was woefully understaffed, did not have the expertise it needed, and didn’t do enough to push Toyota two or three years ago.

MS. IFILL: It was revealing to hear Ray LaHood saying, well, on my watch we’ve been doing it great. And then you ask him about somebody else’s watch, he claims right out.

MR. DICKERSON: What’s going to happen to Toyota now?

MR. SHEPARDSON: Well, this is just the beginning. We went through two – you said soap opera like hearings. We have another hearing next week in the Senate Commerce Committee, which will feature the two top safety officials from Japan coming over. We’ve got the federal grand jury in New York is investigating criminally to see if Toyota broke the law by not admitting to the problems earlier. The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating. NHTSA has requested hundreds of thousands of documents. They’re deciding whether to recall the Toyota Corolla, one of the most popular vehicles in the United States. And there’s going to be yet another round of hearings in these House committees, looking into the Bush administration’s response and now a Toyota whistleblower turning who turned over documents.

MS. TUMULTY: And what are these hearings likely to produce, because isn’t part of the problem that cars now are so full of this hi-tech stuff and the regulations were crafted so long ago?

MR. SHEPARDSON: The two problems they’ve solved so far, floor mats and sticky pedals, by inserting a little shim. The big question is the fact that our cars are very complex computers with millions of lines of code and we don’t know if there’s something in the programming that is causing some of these unintended acceleration cases. There are 2,600 complaints since 2000, alleging 34 deaths. And a lot of people believe it. “It wasn’t my format. It wasn’t the pedal, so it’s got to be something else.” Now, Toyota and NHTSA have looked at this issue for decades. They haven’t found any evidence yet, but it’s something they’re going to – they both have bowed to take a new hard look at.

MR. BENDAVID: But it seems like a big question, particularly for Toyota, is when the public confidence returns, when they’re sort of calm and they sort of accepted Toyota has done what it needs to do and go back to buy Toyota cars. When do you foresee that happening? How far away are we from that?

MR. SHEPARDSON: Well, think first where they were at the end of 2009. Toyota had – they surpassed General Motors as selling the most retailed vehicles in the United States and the world’s largest automaker in a short period. Their reputation’s just taken a calamitous hit. They’ve got a lot of oil buyers. It seemed that half the policymakers in this town own a Toyota Prius, certainly the head of the EPA and the head of NHTSA both own a Prius. So there are loyal customers who’ll return, I think, if they’re convinced that they’ve fixed the problem, they’re going to be transparent, and they’re not going hide anything.

MS. IFILL: Now, there’s a backdrop here, which is that federal government now has a stake in a couple of domestic automakers. So there’s some suspicion about whether they are being tougher on Toyota and whether Obama is “industry friendly” I think was a term that the Toyota executives raised. Do we know?

MR. SHEPARDSON: I don’t think there’s any evidence that because the government owns 60 percent of GM and 10 percent of Chrysler, that they would go after Toyota, one reason because I don’t think it would work. the average Toyota buyer is probably not going to go buy a GM versus a Hyundai or a Honda. I think the domestic companies will get some marginal sales from Toyota’s problems. But I don’t think the answer to fixing GM is to destroy Toyota and the 170,000 jobs they have in the U.S. And I think the Obama administration just wouldn’t try anything like that because it would –

MS. IFILL: Would backfire.

MR. SHEPARDSON: – on any number of levels.

MS. IFILL: Okay, well thank you, David, and once again, welcome.

MR. SHEPARDSON: Thanks, Gwen.

MS. IFILL: Thank you all very much. Opera indeed. We have to go now, but the conversation will continue online. Be sure to check out our “Washington Week” Webcast Extra, everything we didn’t get to hear and it’s good, plus your questions and our answers. You can find us at pbs.org/Washingtonweek, where you could also read my new blog, “Gwen’s Take,” and fire away with those comments. Keep up with daily developments on the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you around the table again next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.

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