Health Plan Issues Divide Democrats, Republicans

Senators Christopher Dodd and Orrin Hatch say they are committed to finding middle ground on overhauling health care. Dodd is filling in as the chairman of the Health Education and Labor Committee, while Ted Kennedy is treated for brain cancer. Hatch has been a Republican leader on health care for years. The two senators talk with Steve Inskeep about what issues need to be resolved with the health plan.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Just before that Senate committee approved a health care plan, two of its key members sat down with us. Democrat Christopher Dodd, whom we heard a moment ago, was going to lead the vote as he fills in for Ted Kennedy. Republican Orrin Hatch is a conservative who has managed to make many deals with Kennedy over the years and is trying now to work with Kennedy's replacement. These two senators say they are committed to working together, though Senator Dodd says the two parties have many differences.

Senator CHRISTOPHER DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): Well, there are issues that need to be resolved (unintelligible) language, whether not we can get to some sort of a so-called public option, that's a source of contention and debate. How you pay for this, obviously, is going to be a source of contention and debate. It's not a matter of our jurisdiction on the health committee, but obviously Orrin Hatch and others who serve on both committees have to wrestle with that. And ultimately we all do, as members of the Senate.

Those are the two big issues, I think, that are lurking out there, that need to be resolved or find some compromise on, if we can to go forward. And I'm confident we will.

INSKEEP: Senator Hatch, what do you think can still prevent this from becoming law?

Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): Well, it's - it is a partisan bill, as Chris has said. I want to complement Chris, because when Senator Kennedy suffered - has suffered from his illness, and he asked Chris to chair this, and to come right in without staff and to be able to do the job that he's done, I'm really impressed. Of course I have been. Chris is one of the better senators here, and I know that Ted felt that this would be in good hands with him.

But I think the biggest problem is - it will be a partisan bill. Now, maybe in the end we can get a number of us together to do a bipartisan bill out of these two bills, that's one in the Health Committee and of course the other one in the Finance Committee. But then you're going to have the House bill. And the Democrats are insisting on having this government plan. Now…

INSKEEP: You're talking about what the administration calls a public option.

Sen. HATCH: Well, public option, or public plan, or government plan. We call it the government plan because - you think we're in debt today. Wait till you see what happens when that happens.

INSKEEP: Senator Dodd, do you need any Republican votes in your committee or go beyond your committee, in the Senate at large, to get some kind of bill passed?

Sen. DODD: Well, I always think that's worthwhile, not just because it's - may help you pass the bill, but also sustaining what you're doing for a number of years. It's an important element. I would say the most important goal is to get a good bill. And if you can get a bipartisan bill, all the better. But our objective is to get a good bill. Fifteen years ago it was unacceptable not to have a health care system that was better. Today it's not sustainable economically. We're being told that if we don't move, as much as 35 percent of the gross domestic product of this country, by the year 2040, could be consumed by health care costs. That is not sustainable. We have no choice but to act.

INSKEEP: Senator Hatch, speaking as a Republican who has involved himself deeply in this issue, who's been part of a group of Republicans looking very seriously in this, I mean, you must know the issues about as well as any person in your party at this point. Do you think it is remotely likely that there will be a bill in the end that you could vote for?

Sen. HATCH: I think if Chris and I could sit down and work it out together, we'd do it. I don't think there's any question about it. He is very much circumscribed by Democrat philosophical approaches that Republicans just can't stand. Sometimes we're circumscribed because we just do not want to see tax increases. We need to sit down and really work together to try and bring this together. And like I say, it's very difficult to get the two sides together because the philosophical differences are really stark.

INSKEEP: Senator Dodd, you chuckled when Senator Hatch suggested that without the ideological baggage the two of you could sit down and work it out.

Sen. DODD: Well, because we have in the past. This was one of my proudest moments as a senator, as a very new senator, along with a guy named Orrin Hatch from Utah. We did the first childcare legislation since World War II.

And of course on countless occasions Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy have worked together on - if we spent the next 15 minutes, I couldn't recite all the bills they've worked on together - so there are those of us here who, despite whatever philosophical differences have, realize we've got a job to do. We didn't come here to just get our own way. We've got a job to do on behalf of the country.

INSKEEP: You've both mentioned the absence of Senator Kennedy, who made this one of his signature issues for decades.

Sen. DODD: Yep.

INSKEEP: What's it been like to be moving legislation without Kennedy here?

Sen. DODD: Well, I tease him. He couldn't have done it on his own. (Unintelligible) he's probably listening to this. It isn't just - he and Orrin are great talents legislatively. We don't celebrate those talents enough. But also what he brings - and what Orrin brings as well - is a spirit of getting something done.

So it's a gap here, but he stays in touch almost every day. I talked to him this morning and he was all excited about the possibly of having at least this bill get out of committee and move forward, and (unintelligible) his pal Orrin, who he loves very much as well. And so hopefully he'll be back at some point in the next few days or weeks and be involved in the debate.

INSKEEP: Is he also calling you, Senator Hatch?

Senator HATCH: We've chatted quite a bit. I haven't chatted for a while. I don't want to bother him. I know what's going on. I check with Chris all the time and he knows anytime he wants to talk to me, he can. We had an hour long meeting not too long ago, where we sat down and talked about all these things, and I told him what I thought we could do, and there are a lot of things he kind of agreed on. For instance, he agreed with me on the follow-on biologics amendment that we put through. His staff did not.

INSKEEP: Has to do with extremely expensive drugs.

Senator HATCH: Yeah. Well, not only expensive, they're drugs that might be lifesaving that are the newest form of health care. Now, I agree with Chris. The reason Ted Kennedy - there are many reasons why he's a great legislator -but one of them is, is that he has the confidence of the principal funders and supporters of the Democratic Party, the unions, the trial lawyers, the - you know, you can go right on down the line. The ones who have put up most of the campaign funds and campaign moneys are people that Ted - will listen to Ted Kennedy no matter what. I don't know of any other Democrat that has had that kind of swat over the years.

INSKEEP: Is there any Republican that could have that kind of swat and deliver Republican votes for a health care bill?

Sen. DODD: Orrin Hatch.

Senator HATCH: Well…

Sen. DODD: (Unintelligible) puts the pressure on, doesn't it?

Senator HATCH: Well, the fact of the matter is, is that, yeah, but it's got to be right. And everybody who works with me knows that I'm not going to come on to something I don't agree with or I don't believe in. I'm willing to mold it. I'm willing to give. I'm certainly willing to compromise. But this is - you've got to admit, Chris, this has been very difficult to get any real compromise.

Sen. DODD: Well, it's the reason it's been 65 years, since the 1940s people have wrestled with this issue, ever since they decided the employer-based system back in World War II. But I'm glad Orrin mentioned the follow-on biologics. The Hatch Amendment was adopted overwhelmingly in this committee.

Senator HATCH: He stuck with his word. He stuck with his word, even though the staff was totally opposed to what he and I wanted to do.

Sen. DODD: (unintelligible) with the Hatch Amendment and…

Senator HATCH: They voted against him.

Sen. DODD: …a more moderate approach on this thing. Twelve years is a little excessive…

INSKEEP: Senators Christopher Dodd and Orrin Hatch at the Capitol yesterday. The two men continued talking as they stood to leave and went to a committee room to vote on a massive health care plan. As part of the party line vote, Democratic Senator Dodd voted yes. Republican Orrin Hatch voted no.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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