Journalist, and one of the contributors to the book Landmark, explains some of the behind-the-scenes wrangling that resulted in the passage of healthcare legislation.
May 5, 2010
Journalist Ceci Connolly
Ceci Connolly has reported on every U.S. presidential campaign since '84, spending time on the trail with Al Gore, John Kerry and Bob Dole. A national staff writer at The Washington Post since '97, she's also covered politics for Congressional Quarterly and worked at the Associated Press in Boston. The Pennsylvania native and Boston College grad spent the past year chronicling the administration's drive for healthcare reform and is one of the contributors to the book Landmark, which examines the impact the legislation will have on Americans.
Tavis: Ceci Connolly is the national health policy correspondent for “The Washington Post” and one of the lead authors of the new text, “Landmark: The Inside Story of America’s New Healthcare Law and What it Means for All of Us.” She joins us tonight from Chicago. Ceci, good to have you on this program.
Ceci Connolly: Great to be with you.
Tavis: How is it that something that has been debated for a year and a half or so, at least in the Obama era, could still be so misunderstood – put another way, not understood, by so many Americans? How is that possible?
Connolly: (Laughs) Gosh, it’s probably my fault, right? I didn’t explain it well enough for the past year and a half. Seriously, Tavis, it is a very complicated subject. Healthcare represents one-sixth of the U.S. economy. We now spend $2.5 trillion on healthcare this year alone, and it’s also, as you know, a very personal issue.
So unlike something where we might have a debate about the debt limit or even Afghanistan, those are subjects that may not touch each and every one of us personally every single day. Healthcare does, so that’s why it is such an emotional issue, it’s such a complicated, confusing issue.
Tavis: I guess the follow-up is the more complex, Ceci, the issue is, the more simplistic you have to be in your formulation so that everyday Americans get it. To my mind, the White House did not do a good job of that and neither did those persons in Congress who supported it, but that’s my sense. What’s your sense of how they explained the complex in a way that everyday people can get it, because it is possible?
I see it all the time where complex things are broken down for people like me who otherwise wouldn’t get it. How did the powers that be do, to your mind, on explaining this complex matter?
Connolly: Well, I would certainly agree with you that they did not do a great job of explaining or selling this effort for much of that past year and a half. They did a pretty good job of articulating the problem. I think everybody sort of understood right away we have so many millions of people in this country who don’t have any health insurance. Everybody gets this notion that healthcare is too expensive and costs are rising too quickly.
But when it came to the proposed solutions that’s where it started getting complicated, and the White House, if you especially think back, Tavis, to last summer, just about a year or so now, a year ago, June, July and into that really rough August of ’09 period, that’s when the White House lost control of the message.
Part of the reason that it did was they let reporters like me write endlessly about the inside Congress really minutia, tedious process kind of story, and it took President Obama coming back and reengaging in September of ’09 with that joint address to Congress which was really a speech to the whole nation to kind of get it back on track a little bit.
Then, of course, fast-forward to this January, when again, it took the president and his own articulate message to really get it back on track.
Tavis: So I’ll put you on the spot now. Now that it’s passed and law, and we’ll talk about these potential Supreme Court challenges in a moment, but now that it is the new law of the land, it means what for everyday Americans?
Connolly: Lots of things for everyday Americans; some of them different. The very first thing that it does mean for just about everybody in this country is that come 2014 you must carry health insurance, very similar to the way that in this country everybody who wants to drive a car must have auto insurance.
So in 2014 that will be a requirement. If you don’t, you’ll face a penalty. There are going to be some exceptions for people who really can’t afford it, and of course illegal immigrants are not a part, for the most part, of this conversation, but just about everybody else.
Now you stop and think about well, folks like small businesses. They’re going to be eligible for tax credits so that they can purchase or contribute to the cost of health insurance for their employees. Many millions more Americans will be eligible for that program known as Medicaid, which offers almost free health insurance to the very lowest income people in our country. Many other people will be eligible for these discounts. I like to think of them as sort of vouchers or credits so that they can go and purchase the health insurance.
So depending on where you are on the income level, up at the very high income level those folks are also going to be facing some higher taxes. So it’s a mixed bag. A lot of change coming, but it’ll be coming in increments. Not everything’s going to happen overnight. It’s going to be a step-by-step sort of implementation.
Tavis: This book, since “The Washington Post,” you and your colleagues are first out the gate, so to speak, with what this healthcare law now means for us. There are a number of things that you all share with us that we did not know heretofore, Ceci, about the back story, the sausage-making of this process, if you will.
In no particular order, take me inside the White House when the president learns that Democrats are going to lose that Kennedy seat in Massachusetts and how that might impact the ultimate vote.
Connolly: Well, just to recall, it was January the 19th of this year. That was that special election, as you mentioned, to replace Senator Ted Kennedy, who had died, and of course we’re adding in some delicious sort of irony here, shall we say, because Ted Kennedy, of course, was really the champion of universal healthcare in this country for such a long time in his career, really for decades.
Lo and behold, January 19th, about 6:30 p.m. President Obama now realizes that this seat is going to go to a Republican by the name of Scott Brown. It will fall out of Democratic hands.
President Obama summons to the Oval Office Vice President Biden, his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, and most importantly Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, and Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader.
He calls them in and he essentially looks at Reid and Pelosi and says, “What are we going to do,” because suddenly they won’t have the 60 Democrats in the Senate, they won’t have that filibuster-proof majority. What’s going to happen to healthcare?
They argue. Reid wants the House to pass the Senate bill; Pelosi says that’s never going to fly in my House, no way, no how. They’re talking over each other, the president can hardly even get in a word, and finally, he snaps, which is pretty uncharacteristic, as you know, for this president to even momentarily lose his cool, and he says, “I understand that, Nancy. What’s your suggestion?”
They really kind of break at that moment, not knowing what they’re going to do, if or how they will be able to rescue what has become his signature issue.
Tavis: One of the things I complained about throughout this process is why the White House didn’t do a more aggressive job of writing its own bill as opposed to leaving this up to the devices of those on the Hill, which I think is one of the ways this thing got bogged down in the first place. That’s my own assessment, but I’ve said that publicly a number of times.
Here I pick up the book “Landmark” and I read and I come to find out, lo and behold, that Rahm Emanuel was, in fact, behind the scenes, directing a secret writing of their own bill inside the White House. Tell me more.
Connolly: Well, you’re right, and of course the original White House strategy was we don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the Clinton era, and they thought that President Clinton made a mistake in dropping a giant bill up on Capitol Hill and telling them “Pass this bill or forget about it.”
So Obama intentionally said, “I’m not writing the bill. Let’s keep a distance.” But as I’m sure you were observing last summer, when all of a sudden time is dragging out up on Capitol Hill and nothing’s happening, it gets to be late July, early August when things are looking very bleak, and Rahm Emanuel does gather a very small, secret team inside the White House, including his brother Zeke, who is a physician and was very involved in this effort, and he brings them together in a room off of the White House mess late one day and says, “Look, you’ve got to start drafting our own bill.
Because if Max Baucus, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, doesn’t act soon, and it was looking rather grim then, Emanuel was determined that they were going to take that bill straight to the Senate floor.
What happened, and I think this was part of his strategy all along, was they actually didn’t have to do that. They just needed the threat of that to get some action going.
Tavis: You and your colleagues, Ceci, argue in this book that the president was the only one in Washington who thought that this bill really was going to be passed with bipartisan support.
Connolly: Yes, it’s an interesting trait about President Obama, and I’m sure you’ve watched this in him over the years as well. He doesn’t like partisanship, and I think that he genuinely believes in his ability to convince people, often on the merits of whatever case he might be arguing, because he is very smart and he is very articulate, and he thought that that’s what he was going to do on this issue.
Now, many people will suggest it was naïve of him to expect that at all, and certainly very late in the game, but he held out hope that Senator Olympia Snowe from Maine, maybe Chuck Grassley from Iowa, Susan Collins, also from Maine, all Republicans who he courted for a good length of time, but in the end he could not get the vote of a single one of them.
Tavis: If I were a cynic I could say that a lot of time was wasted in trying to get bipartisan support when a whole lot of us thought that was never going to happen, but the flipside of that cynicism would be that it wasn’t just Republicans he was trying to lock down; he was trying to lock down enough Democrats to get the thing passed, yes?
Connolly: Absolutely, and many of the efforts that were taken that maybe were interpreted as trying to get some Republican votes also had a lot to do with some of those centrist or moderate Democrats, especially in the Senate, but to some extent in the House as well.
I’m thinking in the Senate in particular about Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the third party candidate or Independent, Ben Nelson from Nebraska, who was number 60 – he was the final vote that they needed, and that came almost down to Christmas Eve, getting his vote.
Senators Lincoln and Landrieu, also conservative Democrats, who it took a long time to bring them along. Now we’re seeing this again in Congress on things like regulatory reform, climate change legislation. It’s always difficult, getting those centrist Democrats on board; and some people would say throw the bill out there and let them filibuster it. But President Obama wanted to take a different approach.
Tavis: Two quick questions here before my time runs out. It is the law of the land now, but will it be – put another way, how much of this is going to be challenged in the court system?
Connolly: I’m not a lawyer, but I have certainly spoken to a fair number of constitutional experts who think that this can withstand the challenges in terms of whether or not it’s constitutional, in particular that individual mandate that we started out talking about, because they say that it is within, they believe, the purview of the federal government.
But we’ll see that play out. I think honestly, the more serious challenges are political rather than legal.
Tavis: I know if any of these three persons, finally, were on this program tonight and I would ask this question, I can tell you what their answer might be, but let me ask you. Who’s the biggest winner here – Obama, Pelosi, Reid – and I’m asking inside the Beltway, because I know they would say the American people are the big winners here. But inside the Beltway, who’s the big winner here, now that this thing has passed?
Connolly: Well, I guess I’m going to call it a draw between Pelosi and Obama for somewhat different reasons, but Pelosi achieved what no Speaker of the House has been able to achieve; Obama, the same goes for, like so many presidents who tried before.
I think in the case of Obama, what it did inside the Beltway was it made people realize he’s a big tougher and he is more perseverance and more patience than maybe people expected, and he was able to pull this off.
For Pelosi, just sheer force of her ability to marshal the troops in the House, not once, but twice. That was, politically speaking, no matter how you feel about the actual contents of the bill, politically speaking it was an amazing achievement for her.
Tavis: The first Speaker to do it and the first woman, of course, to be Speaker, so you read that any way you want to read it. Her name -
Connolly: Exactly. (Laughter)
Tavis: – speaking of women, her name is Ceci Connolly and she and her colleagues at “The Washington Post” are first out the gate with a book about what this healthcare bill means – this law, I should say now, means for all of us. It’s called “Landmark: The Inside Story of America’s New Healthcare Law and What it Means for Us All.” Ceci, thanks for coming on the program.
Connolly: It was my pleasure.
Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm