Sen. Baucus Discusses Daschle, Stimulus

What impact does Tom Daschle's withdrawal from his nomination as secretary of Health and Human Services have on health care reform? Meanwhile, how is the economic stimulus package faring in the Senate? Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana offers his insight.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Joining us from Capitol Hill is Senator Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. And who said, yesterday, that he was a little stunned by the withdrawal of Tom Daschle which he called regrettable. Senator Baucus, welcome.

Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana; Finance Committee Chairman): Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: How badly does the withdrawal of Tom Daschle set back the prospect of healthcare legislation?

Sen. BAUCUS: I don't think it sets it back very much at all. Tom Daschle is a terrific fellow - knows, probably, more about healthcare than most anybody else. But there's such momentum now for healthcare reform. The stars seemed so aligned, whether it's people don't have health insurance, or others health costs are so high - there's a convergence here. They get healthcare reform passed this year, and I might add on top of that - and probably even more important - is the President. Barack Obama campaigned of healthcare reform when he was a candidate. I talked with his top staff today. If anything, they're even more urgently moving towards healthcare reform. So, I think we're going to move very quickly. It's my top priority. I'm going to do what I can to get healthcare reform passed this year.

SIEGEL: Alright. Well, give us a reality test here: If there's so much momentum, when do you think we could see a real healthcare reform passed? And when might it then take effect and, actually, have an impact on people's lives?

Sen. BAUCUS: Well, I think we'll get legislation passed this year. Now, the effect of it's going to take some time, because this can take some time to get various components in place, where some of the benefits would be realized. For example, measures like health information technology will spend some upfront money, but the benefits probably won't be realized for a couple, three years later.

SIEGEL: But, in terms of extending health insurance to tens of millions of people who don't have any right now, you think there would be - within two years - do you think number will be cut in half?

Sen. BAUCUS: Well, I think two years will be a bit aggressive. To be conservative, it'd be sometime between, maybe, a year and half and three years before this is all up and going. We'll clearly move as aggressively as we can - also, we can't over-promise. If we want universal coverage as I do - and I think most do - that means doctors, hospitals, nurses, insurance companies, medical equipment manufacturers, everybody - we're all in this together. And there's going to have to be some give and take. And I'm encouraging everybody to keep an open mind.

SIEGEL: But let me put to you what our lead reporter on this story, Julie Rovner, reports, which is that bipartisanship is on the wane, in the Congress right now. She says that the new SCHIP - the children's insurance plan - is law, but a lot of Republicans resent that. They think there are give-backs that have come from - what the compromises they worked out in the last Congress. Do you have the same sense that - to patch things up right now?

Sen. BAUCUS: No, I do not have that sense. The children's health insurance program got a little partisan, because of the inclusion of legal immigrants -was different from the earlier bills. But that is, just, I think, is an aberration. I've had a lot of meetings with a lot of Republicans who very much want healthcare reform this year. I sense that this is not a partisan issue. And I'll do my best to make sure it doesn't become a partisan issue.

SIEGEL: One other front, one last question about the stimulus bill - there too. The president doesn't have 60 votes yet in the Senate, behind the bill. What is something that you think you could part with easily from the bill that came over from the House, in order to bring over perhaps a dozen Republicans? What's one element of that bill that you're willing to say goodbye to?

Sen. BAUCUS: Well, I don't mean to dodge the issue, but, frankly, about 800 billion that is so important and, frankly, the difference between 800 billion total spending over two years, compared with, say, 650 billion over two years amounts, according to the economists, amounts to about a one million difference in jobs.

SIEGEL: But can you see it coming down to a reduced package, just to get something through, and your having to accept that?

Sen. BAUCUS: It might come down slightly. But at the end of the day, I think that, by and large, the legislation that's in the Senate today is going to get passed (unintelligible) 60 votes.

SIEGEL: Senator Baucus, thanks for talking with us.

Sen. BAUCUS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

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