Political Junkie: What's Next For Health Care?

Guests:

Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor.
Ezra Klein covers economic and domestic policy for The Washington Post.
Beth Reinhard is a political writer for The Miami Herald.

In this week's political junkie, NPR political editor Ken Rudin discusses what will happen next in health care legislation now that a key Senate committee has passed the overhaul bill. He'll also talk about President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize, and Obama's promise to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, broadcasting from the studios of WOSU, our member station in Columbus, Ohio. History calls and Snowe answers, the Nobel Committee calls the White House, and a former Democrat to call it quits. From the state that calls itself the mother of presidents, it's Wednesday, and time for a Buckeye edition of the Political Junkie.

President RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

Vice President WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?

Senator BARRY GOLDWATER (Former Republican Senator, Arizona): Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

Senator LLOYD BENTSEN (Former Democratic Senator, Texas): Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

President RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): Lipstick.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.

Mr. HOWARD DEAN (Former Chairman, Democratic National Convention): Aaaaagh!

CONAN: Every Wednesday, NPR political editor Ken Rudin joins us for a roundup of all things political. Secretary Clinton says she's no longer interested in the big job. Her boss says he will put an end to don't ask, don't tell, but doesn't say when. Bob Dole's upset to be listed as a health-reform Republican, Charlie Rangel's hot water gets hotter, John McCain better watch out to his right.

Later, we'll check in on Florida and focus on how Congress can merge three health care bills in the House and two in the Senate, plus death penalty controversies here in Ohio and in Texas. But first, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us in Studio 3A in Washington. He's back from KJZZ, our member station in Phoenix. Hey, Ken.

KEN RUDIN: Neal, how are you?

CONAN: You're not in my chair, are you?

RUDIN: I am, actually. As a matter of fact, your name has been crossed off the door, and it says Kenny Rudin now. So it's very sad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: Before we get to the trivia question, can I just talk a little bit about K-JAZZ, KJZZ?

CONAN: Sure.

RUDIN: A great visit. They love the show. They have tremendous enthusiasm there. And what I was most impressed about going to Arizona - this is in Tempe, Arizona - the diversity they have there, the people, the language and the culture. And I learned that, for example, soy milk means I am milk. I never knew that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: So I've learned a lot on my trip to Arizona. I just…

CONAN: I like their station because they actually have windows in the studio. You can see something other than a control room. Anyway…

RUDIN: It's a gorgeous station, and the people are great.

CONAN: What's the trivia question?

RUDIN: The trivia question is, well, you know, of course, yesterday was the big news that Obama finally got his Republican vote on health care, and that was Olympia Snowe of Maine. Maine, as you know, has two women in the Senate, but it's not the first state in American history to have two female senators. But there is something regarding women and Senate races in Maine that has made history in the past 50 years, and what is that?

CONAN: If you think you know the answer to that murky question, a history-making Senate race in Maine in the last 50 years, call and tell us who and why: 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. The winner, of course, gets a fabulous no-prize T-shirt. But in any case, as you mentioned, Ken, the Senate Finance Committee met yesterday, approved an $829 billion health care measure by a vote of 14 to nine. That counts one Republican in favor, Olympia Snowe of Maine.

Senator OLYMPIA SNOWE (Republican, Maine): Is this bill all that I would want? Far from it. Is it all that it can be? No. But when history calls, history calls. And I happen to think the consequences of inaction dictate the urgency of Congress to take every opportunity to demonstrate its capacity to solve the monumental issues of our time.

CONAN: And Ken, this puts Olympia Snowe in an extraordinarily powerful position as this bill goes ahead.

RUDIN: Well, true, because she is the only Republican on board, and that includes the House and the Senate. And while the Democrats could have passed this either way - they have 13 Democrats to 10 Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee. They could have passed it on a party-line vote of 13 to 10, but President Obama has said from the beginning that he wants a, quote, "bipartisan bill." And if you have 8,000 Democrats and one Republican, I guess that makes it a bipartisan bill.

CONAN: Well, what it enables conservative Democrats to do is to hold on to their vision of the health care proposal, thereby saying to liberal Democrats, if you go too far to the left, we're going to lose that one Republican.

RUDIN: Yes, but Olympia Snowe said her vote only is about the vote in the Finance Committee. It doesn't guarantee how she's going to vote one way or the other on the Senate floor. But if the goal is to keep Olympia Snowe in the fold, that means there's no public option, and that means that the liberals like Jay Rockefeller, Chuck Schumer, other Democrats who have been pushing for the public option may not get what they want. So there may be some dissention in the Democratic ranks, as well. Are they willing to go so far to get one Republican vote and alienate a lot of the progressive Democrats?

CONAN: In any case, we're going to focus more on how - the process by how all of these bills are merged into something that gets a vote on the Senate floor and on the House floor and then what happens presuming they're approved. But that's later in the program.

Ken, what are the political effects of the Nobel Peace Prize?

RUDIN: Well, that's a good question, too. I mean, there's a lot - I've seen commentary all over the country saying that it's a plus and a minus for President Obama. I'll be honest. I was in Arizona when the news came earlier in the morning, and I honestly thought it was an Onion headline because I really thought it was a joke - not because he's not deserving of it, but because I've never seen, in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize, awards given out on potential or hope or promise as opposed to actual accomplishments.

Now, he did get a black professor and a white Cambridge police officer together at the Beer Summit, and that could be the reason why he got the Nobel Prize. I'm teasing, of course, but it just seems like that of all the people who have risked so much to bring peace in the world, it seemed a little odd to me that it would be President Obama, and President Obama himself said that he didn't think he was worthy of it.

But, you know, there's pride in the fact that it is an American president who got it. I think some of the reaction, some of the opposition to it is really overboard, gone over the line, but still, it just - it was a surprising choice.

CONAN: As we were on the air last week, the House of Representatives was voting on a Republican proposal to remove Charlie Rangel as head of the House Ways and Means Committee. And, of course, the Democrats, on pretty much a party-line vote, held sway. But nevertheless, this is beginning to take its toll.

RUDIN: Yes, and I think the reason the Republicans pushed that vote was not because they expected to prevail and get Charlie Rangel removed as chairman of Ways of Means, but they wanted to Democrats on record. Remember, Nancy Pelosi, who campaigned in 2006 against the Republican Party of corruption, the culture of corruption and said that she would have the most ethical party in history now has these lingering ethical questions over Charlie Rangel's head. And so the Republicans knew exactly what was going to happen with the vote, but the Ethics Committee said that they will - they are extending their investigation into Charlie Rangel, into the properties he's owned, the money he's gotten, the money he's not reported as income. And it's an embarrassment for the Democratic Party, who basically came to power in 2006 on that issue.

CONAN: And a report that Robert Wexler, a Democrat from Florida, may step down as soon as tomorrow.

RUDIN: Well - he has certainly announced that he's leaving. He's going to join something called the Center for the Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation. It's an organization, obviously, working for peace in the Middle East. Robert Wexler has long been a strong, staunch supporter of Israel. It was a surprise.

There was - there's always feeling that he had tremendous ambition, perhaps for a Senate seat. There were some rumors that maybe one of the reasons he's leaving Congress is because he and the Obama administration don't see eye to eye on progress for peace in the Middle East. There's another report that he has three daughters, I believe, who are either attending or about to attend college, and he just needed it for financial reasons. But it was a big surprise, a solidly Democratic district. It's in Palm Beach, Florida. There will be a special election to succeed Robert Wexler, and it's almost guaranteed to keep the Democrats in the seats.

CONAN: We'll have more on that a little bit later in the program. In the meantime, we have some people who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question, a history-making race for the Senate in Maine within the last 50 years, coming in the context of Olympia Snowe's vote yesterday in favor of the Baucus bill. So you have to tell us who was involved and why it was historic. We'll start first with Brenda, and Brenda's with us from Aiken in South Carolina.

BRENDA (Caller): Well, based on what you just said, I can tell I'm wrong. I was going to guess that the history was that Margaret Chase Smith of Maine was the first female senator.

RUDIN: Well, she was certainly the first female senator from Maine, but not the first female senator in history. That was Rebecca Felton in Georgia in, like, 1912, 1914, something like that. But there's really history in one Senate race in Maine that made history regarding women, and so that's what I'm looking for.

BRENDA: All right, thanks.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Brenda. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Rick, Rick with us from Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

RICK (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

RICK: Hi. Is it the first mother and daughter to hold the same seat in the Senate?

CONAN: And who would that have been?

RICK: I can't recall the name. I just read an article about it this summer.

RUDIN: All I can say is no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RICK: Oh, darn.

RUDIN: Is that - that's not - if that ever happened, it didn't happen in Maine.

CONAN: All right, let's - I'm sorry I let you go, but in the meantime, let's go next to - this is Richard, Richard with us from San Antonio.

RICHARD (Caller): Yes. It was the first senatorial race where two women competed, and it was Margaret Chase Smith and I think a woman by the name of Dupre(ph).

RUDIN: Well, I think this is a winner, even though the actual person Margaret Chase Smith defeated in 1960 was a woman by the name of Lucia Cormier.

RICHARD: Oh, Cormier, right.

RUDIN: But it is the first time in history that two women, the two major parties, Democrats and Republicans, nominated women for the Senate. It was 1960 in Maine.

CONAN: So Richard, hang on the line. We're going to send you a fabulous no-prize T-shirt. Of course, we're going to have to clip the left sleeve off the T-shirt, because you didn't get it quite right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RICHARD: Okay, okay.

RUDIN: And you know, that's where they got that slogan, remember the Maine. It was from that 1960 Senate race in Maine.

RICHARD: Yeah, right. Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah, right. Okay, we're going to try to put you on hold. Let's see if I can find the right button here. In any case, you were in Arizona, and there is much talk in Arizona, Ken, of a challenger to Senator John McCain, of course, the most recent Republican presidential candidate.

RUDIN: Well, the problem with John McCain and the Republicans is that he's never been conservative enough, and that's certainly true when it comes to issues like illegal immigration. Of course, there are other issues, as well: campaign finance, campaign contributions, things like that. But it's the overhaul of the immigration system that has really gotten conservatives upset, and a guy named Chris Simcox, who is the founder of the Minutemen in Arizona, the anti-immigration, anti-illegal-immigration group, has already decided to challenge John McCain in the next August, 2010 primary.

Also, there are rumors that JD Hayworth, who's now a radio talk-show host, former congressman, a conservative congressman who was beaten in 2006, is also looking at a potential challenge to McCain in the primary. I suspect that they will both make a lot of noise, but neither will come close to beating McCain, who's very popular in the state, looking for a fifth term.

CONAN: And speaking of former presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton said this week that she has no plans to ever run again.

RUDIN: Well, you know, ever is a long time. I think it's silly that she keeps getting asked this question. So I think that's the logical answer and the proper answer for her to say, because she's still trying to get Russia to agree on Iranian sanctions. So, you know, I think she has other things on her plate other than a 2012 or 2016 presidential run, and it's probably the only answer that made sense. But I can't believe that she keeps getting asked the question over and over again.

CONAN: Well, Ken, stay with us. Big news in Washington this week. The Baucus health care bill, it passed with one Republican vote. So what happens next? There are four other committee bills out there. We'll talk about the politics and the procedural maneuverings of health care. How does the final product get manufactured? How do those bills get put together to face votes on the House and Senate floor? Stay with us. 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan at the studios of WOSU, our member station in Columbus, Ohio. Back in Washington, Ken Rudin is keeping the lights on in Studio 3A, NPR's political editor and our Political Junkie. You can check out his blog and download his podcast at npr.org.

Yesterday, the Senate Finance Committee approved a bill to overhaul health care coverage. Senator Olympia Snowe said this before she cast her vote in favor of the bill, the lone Republican to support it.

Senator OLYMPIA SNOWE (Republican, Maine): People do have concerns about what we will do with reform, but at the same time, they want us to continue working. And that is what my vote to report this bill out of committee here today represents, is to continue working the process.

CONAN: So what happens when the bill gets reported out of committee? What's next? With three health care bills in the House, two in the Senate, what will it take to get a bill to the president's desk? In just a minute, we'll talk with Ezra Klein, a policy blogger for the Washington Post. If you have questions about the procedure and the politics of the health care overhaul, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And joining us now from a studio at the Washington Post is Ezra Klein, who covers economics and policy issues for the newspaper. And nice of you to be with us today.

Mr. EZRA KLEIN (Reporter, Washington Post): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Okay, we got the Baucus bill out of the Finance Committee yesterday, but that is not the only bill to pass a Senate committee.

Mr. KLEIN: No, I mean, the Baucus bill is number five of five. If anything, it is a bit of a latecomer here. The next big step for health care reform comes in the Senate, and it is the merging of the Baucus bill and the Senate HELP bill. And to get a bit of a sense of what's about to happen there, you've got realize the Baucus bill is a lot bigger than the HELP bill.

It's bigger than the HELP bill because the HELP Committee - which used to be run by Ted Kennedy, but Chris Dodd was really the point man during health care reform due to Kennedy's illness - doesn't have jurisdiction over revenues, Medicare or Medicaid.

So the bill doesn't have any money in it, and it doesn't have any Medicaid expansion, and it doesn't do anything for Medicare. So there's a lot missing. But it is a more liberal bill. The subsidies are higher. It's somewhat more affordable. It has a public option. And the merger of those two bills - which will be done by Baucus, Dodd and the Senate leadership - will create the floor bill, which is going to be what the Senate eventually votes on.

CONAN: You say it's going to be created by the senators. Is this the closed-door meeting where these things get hashed out?

Mr. KLEIN: It is, indeed. It's a totally closed-door meeting. Today, we heard that Olympia Snowe will actually be in there, which I would guess - although I haven't actually confirmed it - was a price for her vote. But that should actually tilt the negotiations of that meeting.

Before, you had Baucus sort of representing the Senate moderates and then Chris Dodd representing the liberals. And now you'll have a liberal, a centrist Democrat and a moderate Republican. So you can expect that to change the outcome a little bit.

But it will be done there, and the final bill may not look that much like either of the bills we're looking at now. It probably won't look that dissimilar, but, you know, they can add and remove as they please.

And something important to note here: It is much harder to change a bill -either to add or to remove - on the floor of the Senate than in committee. In committee, what you need a majority of the committee to vote with you. On the floor of the Senate, you need 60. Every amendment is open to filibuster. So if, you know, you want to take out the public option Baucus and Dodd put in, you need 60. If you want to add more affordability, you would need 60.

So the bill coming out of there is going to be a tricky one to change. It's going to look a lot like what the Senate eventually votes on - most likely, anyway.

CONAN: One thing we'd heard a lot about was a procedural maneuver the Democrats might have to resort to - so that they would only need 50 votes on the Senate floor for a bill. Are they going to have to go to that?

Mr. KLEIN: It doesn't look that way. What we're talking about there is the reconciliation process, and they really work to avoid it. And here's the reason: The reconciliation process is very limited. There's something called the Byrd Rule, named after Senator Byrd, that limits it to essentially things that directly - and directly's an important word there - affect the deficit up or down, affect the budget up or down. So things like insurance market regulations, keeping your insurer from discriminating against you on preexisting conditions, that wouldn't be allowed under reconciliation. You would have to lose it in the bill. And there'd be a lot of things like that, where the Senate parliamentarian would make the ruling.

So they really wanted to avoid it. They have 60 Democrats now, with the replacement for Kennedy, and they have Olympia Snowe, it seems. So they have enough to break a filibuster cold. And if they can break it cold, they're going to do it that way. And that's why Harry Reid is putting so much into keeping Snowe on the board.

CONAN: Well, is he going to be able to keep all the Democrats and independents on the board - Joe Lieberman and maybe Nelson on the right, and of course, people like Jay Rockefeller on the left?

Mr. KLEIN: You know, Jay - I wouldn't worry too much about Jay Rockefeller. Nelson has also been making encouraging, you know, noises about public-option compromises and this and that. He said he would need a Republican vote to stay on the bill, and it looks like he's got one.

Lieberman is interesting. He went on "Imus" - I think it was yesterday, actually - and said he couldn't vote for the bill as it is right now. I'm a little bit skeptical. He's got a lot to lose here. He's got a chairmanship of a committee that he almost didn't get this year because Democrats were so annoyed at him. But they gave it to him pretty much under the precise rationale that he'll vote with them when it comes down to it.

So if he doesn't, if he rebukes them here, they probably will strip him of that committee, and his remaining years in the Senate will be a pretty miserable time for him. So I think this may be a little bit more noise than it is action, but we'll see.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is Gary, Gary calling us from Southampton in New York.

GARY (Caller): Hi. Very quickly, what is the likelihood now that Olympia Snowe has cast this vote, what is the likelihood of a conservative electoral backlash similar to what Arlen Specter faced? And has she faced such a backlash in the past, and what is the likelihood she may switch parties as a result?

CONAN: Ken Rudin, I think that's to you.

RUDIN: You know, well, that's a good question. Obviously, everybody thinks of Arlen Specter because it was a rebellion from the right and from Pat Toomey, the conservative candidate, that basically got Arlen Specter from the R's to the D's. Olympia Snowe has never faced a conservative challenger - a serious challenger. She's not up for reelection till 2012. And unlike Specter, she still remains very popular.

The Republican Party in Maine is much different than the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, which is far more culturally conservative. So it seems like she's - at least, you know, 2012 is a long way off, but it doesn't look like she's going to pay any price for her heresy right - as of yet.

CONAN: Ezra, you were trying to get in there?

Mr. KLEIN: Oh no, I just had - I hadn't heard earlier. So I didn't know we had another guest, but I'm fine.

CONAN: Okay, I'm sorry.

Mr. KLEIN: But I'm so happy to meet you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay. He'll be invited back soon, won't he, Ken?

RUDIN: He never gets a T-shirt.

CONAN: I see. In any case, thanks very much for the call, Gary.

GARY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And we've talked about, with Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, his one and only appearance here on TALK OF THE NATION's Political Junkie…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So that's the process in the Senate, three different versions of this bill in the House of Representatives.

Mr. KLEIN: Yeah. So right there, you have the Energy and Commerce bill, which got a little bit watered down when the Blue Dogs went at it. You have the, I want to say, Education and Labor bill and then Ways and Means. And what is happening there right now is really pretty interesting.

Nancy Pelosi is sending the Congressional Budget Office three different versions of the bill to score. One is a very strong public option that can bargain with Medicare payment rates. The other has a weaker public option, and the other has a trigger. And she's essentially going to put them on the table, and the expectation, from what CBO has told us already, is that the stronger your public option, the more money you save. And she'll say make your decision. But - and I think that's going to have a lot to do with which final bill they put on the floor.

But, you know, you don't hear people worrying about the House that often right now, and it's probably because the House is sort of run like the Soviet Union. They've pretty confident they can get what they need out of there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: When you say the trigger, this is, as I understand it, is saying there won't be a public option right now, but if things don't work the way we would like them to work, maybe five years from now, we would have a trigger, we would have a public option.

Mr. KLEIN: Exactly. This is actually Snowe's idea. She's been pushing this for a long time. My sense from my reporting on the subject has been that that's actually falling out of favor a little bit. What you're seeing more is talk of something Tom Carper brought up, Senator Tom Carper, which is a state-based public option where, say, California could decide to have one, and Alabama could decide not to have one.

Senator Chuck Schumer has also brought up a variant of this, which would make it a bit stronger. There would be a national public option, where states could opt out if they wanted. So Missouri could say I'm just not down for this, but the others could keep a sort of strong, national, robust option there.

RUDIN: Neal, could I jump in for a quick second?

CONAN: Sure.

RUDIN: Ezra, quick question. We've had now five committees voting on five different health care bills. We've had a total of one Republican, Olympia Snowe, and obviously, that vote is very important to President Obama to make it a so-called bipartisan bill. And she says she will not vote for it if it includes the public option. Does that mean there's no public option in the final package?

Mr. KLEIN: I don't - I think it's actually hard to say what she will and will not vote for. I got asked last night, you know, give us a look into Olympia Snowe's mind, and the joke is if any of us could look into it, our jobs would be a lot easier right now.

She's big on the trigger. I don't think she's been that positive on the state-based option, but, you know, there are other things she wants, too. And it's a funny position she's in, right? Right now, she sort of decides what the compromise looks like. But it may, at the end, be that, you know, she has to compromise, as well. So we'll see what they're able to negotiate out with her.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Cody, Cody calling us from Key West.

CODY (Caller): Yeah, I kind of have the feeling that this Olympia Snowe move was more like a strategic move in order to keep most of the far-left Democrats from being able to make this a public option.

CONAN: Well, that seems to be the effect a lot of people are talking about, Ezra.

Mr. KLEIN: You know, I'm not so sure. I think that what you would've seen - if Olympia Snowe didn't come on the bill, all the power would have been with Ben Nelson, Evan Bayh and a couple of those, sort of very conservative Democrats. And, you know, what the people on the Hill tell is that they are worse than Snowe. They would rather negotiate with Olympia Snowe than with Ben Nelson. Olympia Snowe is very concerned about affordability, that in some way she's more Democrat than they are. And so a lot of people are actually pretty glad that she will be the primary dealmaker for that block of votes as opposed to some of the folks from - actually, fundamentally much more conservative constituencies. I mean, remember, Olympia Snowe represents Maine. I mean, Maine, it does have two Republican senators, but not because it isn't an extremely liberal state. It is. Obama's health care plan is very popular in Maine. The public option is very popular in Maine. Nebraska, Obama is not popular. The public option is not popular. And so there's actually a lot more underlying Ben Nelson's opposition and underlying Olympia Snowe's.

CONAN: Hmm. Thanks very much for the call, Cody.

CODY: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to - this will be Ron(ph). Ron, with us from Amarillo.

RON (Caller): Yes, sir. I was just curious about this - you keep hearing about pork all the time and I'm curious, the riders that goes on the bill, would there be anything there to help this health care go through?

CONAN: Ezra, are there going to be pork amendments, earmarks as they're called, attached to this health care reform bill?

RON: Yes, sir. That's it.

Mr. KLEIN: I am sure there will be. Although I don't know if it's quite so much earmarks as it will be actually in the guts of the bill itself, right? So one of the big things here is going to be giving - making sure rural hospitals get, you know, paid a fair amount of money more than they get paid right now from Medicare services, because that's a huge deal to people who represent rural states like Kent Conrad or, for that matter, Olympia Snowe. You're going to see a lot of questions about geographical variation in costs.

New York is going to have to pay a lot of money under the excise tax, while, you know, a much cheaper insurance state like, I don't know, Nebraska wouldn't. So there's going to be a lot of horse-trading back and forth to get people's sort of natural constituencies, you know, quiet down enough so they can come on to the bill. But I don't think it'll fundamentally be done in the amendments. I mean, health care reform is such big money, that it's going to have to be actually in the bill itself. Anything you could just sort of tack on as a sort of a rider to it wouldn't be big enough to make a difference given the sums we're taking about.

RON: Okay, thank you.

CONAN: Ron, thanks very much.

And we're talking about - effectively, you're thinking two very different bills are going to emerge from the House of Representatives and from the US Senate.

Mr. KLEIN: I think that's right. And it's not only the public option here. The other big difference is going to be in the way they do the revenues. So the Senate Finance bill, the reason it cuts the deficit in the first 10 years and even more in the second 10 years is this thing called the excise tax, which taxes high-cost health care plans and doesn't grow as quickly as health care costs, so it begins to tax sort of lower-cost health care plans. And the hope is that it actually gets employers to offer, you know, more sort of high-value affordable plans over time.

In the House, they pretty much just put a tax on rich people, and that grows more slowly than health care. So in 10 years and in 20 years, you have the deficit actually increasing as a result of the bill. Now, that also doesn't anger unions as much, employers aren't quite scared of it. So there are different politics on the side of each. But that's going to be a really, really big fight right there. I mean, the House is very dead set against this excise tax because the unions really hate it, and the Senate is very dead set against anything that's going to increase the deficit. So…

CONAN: We're talking…

Mr. KLEIN: …that's going to be - that may actually be harder to solve than the public plan.

CONAN: We're talking with Ezra Klein of The Washington Post. Of course, Political Junkie, Ken Rudin is with us, as he is every Wednesday. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Ezra, this is a process. Once there are bills passed by the House and the Senate, whatever they may be, there is then a policy of, what's called, reconciliation, not to be confused with the same policy in the same parliamentary maneuver in the Senate we talked about earlier. But this is marrying these two very different measures.

Mr. KLEIN: Yep, so that'll go into conference committee. And conference committee is an interesting sort of beast all its own. So the House leadership and the Senate leadership will both appoint a negotiating team. And that negotiating team can be as big or small as they want. And this is actually a sort of an important thing. For the bill to advance out of conference committee, you have to have a majority on both negotiating teams on their own. So you couldn't have most House members joining with a couple liberal senators and they all vote to pass it and then it goes. You would have to have a majority on the Senate side and on the House side before it can go. So that's going to be a pretty detailed negotiation. And that, along with this sort of merger in the Senate right now between the health and finance bills, this is where you're going to see the White House play a really central role. I mean, you're going to have Orszag in that room and Rahm Emanuel in that room and, you know, Phil Schiliro on that room. And they're really going to be the guys calling a lot of the shots there.

CONAN: And is it the senators and the representatives themselves or is it their chief aides, their staff members?

Mr. KLEIN: It's a bit of both. I mean, obviously, they're going to be getting a lot of advice from their primary aides. But, you know, at the end of the day, these guys have - and girls have a lot of ego and they want to be involved and, you know, they're the ones who get to make the call. So that room is going to have a lot of very smart people who, you know, really want to have final decision-making power here.

But I think at the end of the day, there's going to be a lot of - there's going to have to be a lot deferring to the White House on what they want because otherwise you would just never come to a compromise. And for health care reporters like me, it's going to be a bit of a pain. You can really be here till Christmas waiting for the conference committee.

CONAN: Noah's(ph) on the line, calling from Pennington in New Jersey.

NOAH (Caller): Hi. I was just wondering why the Democrats wouldn't be willing to play hard ball with reconciliation earlier in this decade when the Republican's had control of the Senate. If the parliamentarian ruled against them, they just fired them and put in a guy that would rule however they want. Why are we taking such a powerful chip off the table?

Mr. KLEIN: Well, I wouldn't say it's off the table. They could still go to it, but it didn't really work that well for the Republicans. They did reconciliation for the tax cuts, which was the first time reconciliation had ever been used to increase the deficit. But that was something that was very natural under reconciliation. It only moved the deficit up or down. You couldn't fire the parliamentarian quickly enough and get him back in to get health care reform done. So you would actually have to abide by whatever this parliamentarian is going to say. And they're just not confident on what they could get. I mean, you really wouldn't be able to get things like the insurance market reforms. You just couldn't find a parliamentarian that, you know, who would go far enough to rule with you on that one. And to try and blow up the Senate, you would lose moderate Democrats - either you'd lose Democrats like Byrd who are interested in preserving Senate traditions. So you'd end up with a lot of trouble. And at this point in the endgame, I think they really just want to get the bill on the table. They don't want to get into a really high-risk strategy.

NOAH: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks, Noah. And let's see if we can get one more caller in. And this is Trevor(ph). Trevor with us from San Francisco.

TREVOR (Caller): Yeah. Hi. Good afternoon. My question, really quickly, is: Do you think part of the importance about Snowe is that she might be carrying a couple proxy votes, which is Collins and possibly Voinovich?

CONAN: We just have a minute left. Ken, what do you think?

RUDIN: Well, as we touched on it - but I mean, I think what it - what she does bring is more of the centrist Democrats who are afraid to get involved than any other Republicans.

TREVOR: (Unintelligible) Collins.

Mr. KLEIN: That's exactly right. And potentially, Collins. Yeah.

CONAN: Potentially Collins, her running mate from Maine there. Thanks very much for the call, Trevor.

And Ezra Collins, we want to thank you for your time today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KLEIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Ezra Klein, of course, from the Washington Post who joined us from a studio at that newspaper. We really do appreciate it. Ken Rudin's going to stay with us. We're going to check in in Florida in just a minute when we come back, and also talk about controversies on the death penalty, not just here in Ohio, but in Texas as well. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Earlier today, Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler, who represents Florida's 19th district, made a surprise announcement: He will leave Congress to head a Washington think tank in January. And joining us now is Beth Reinhard, a political writer for the Miami Herald. She joins us by phone from her home in Fort Lauderdale.

Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. BETH REINHARD (Correspondent, Miami Herald): Thanks.

CONAN: Congressman Wexler has been in the House since 1997. What happened? Why now?

Ms. REINHARD: He said that the political crisis in the Middle East has reached a critical point. He said, we don't have the luxury to wait. He said it was a very hard decision for him to leave early, but he felt that he needs to immediately engage in trying to bring peace in that region.

CONAN: So this is a think tank devoted to the Middle East?

Ms. REINHARD: Yeah, to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.

CONAN: And is he in accord with President Obama or is he leaving in part because he may have policy differences with the Democratic president?

Ms. REINHARD: He said that he planned to work in concert with the Obama administration and with Secretary of State Clinton. He said, you know, he felt that he could be more effective, I guess as a government outsider. The way he described it was, you know, when you're focused only on one issue, as he will be with this group, as opposed to when you're a government or a government official when you have conflicting issues and interests.

CONAN: And when we talked about this earlier with Ken Rudin, he said also the congressman has several children of college age and may be interested in making more money than he can make as a member of Congress.

Ms. REINHARD: He did acknowledge that he will be making considerably more money. He joked that now that he's in a private sector, he doesn't have to tell us how much money he's making. But he said, you know, this will afford my family a financial security that he's never had before. He's not - really been on the low side as far as members of Congress in terms of their net income but - and that definitely will change.

RUDIN: Beth, Robert Wexler is always known as one of the more liberal, more outspoken liberals of Congress and loved the fight. It seemed kind of strange -surprising perhaps, maybe - we always thought he was at wait for a Senate seat opening or something like that, for him to leave Congress in the middle of an administration, or at least in a Democratic majority where his way of thinking - his ideological way of thinking - is perhaps as strong as it's ever been since he's been in Congress.

Ms. REINHARD: Mm-hmm. Well, this has always been his passion. He told the reporters that went to his office today that there wasn't any other reason. He said, I'm in good health. I'm not under investigation. My marriage is intact. You know, he made it clear that the job was the only reason.

RUDIN: He's not going to Argentina?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. REINHARD: He's not going to Argentina. And as I said, he feels that a crisis is imminent. And I think, you know, he - like I said, he acknowledged the money factor as well.

CONAN: Ken told us earlier, this is a solidly Democratic district. Any early thought on who might line up to try to replace him?

Ms. REINHARD: The line is already long. There's some state senators and state representatives that are expected to get into it, some of whom he's mentored. And, you know, of course, when you have one of these Democratic battles, you're going to have friends running against each other who will soon turn into enemies, and people taking sides. And it could get, you know, pretty sticky for Democrats and for Congressman Wexler if he decides to endorse.

CONAN: So this would be - oh, I'm sorry, Ken. Go ahead.

RUDIN: Sorry, I just want to say while the Democrats are fighting over this seat, I don't know if you're following the Senate race on the Republican side…

Ms. REINHARD: Sure.

RUDIN: …that Mel Martinez is giving up. But that also looks like Republicans are in a fight as well between Charlie Crist, the governor, and Marco Rubio, the conservative.

Ms. REINHARD: Right.

RUDIN: And that seems to be getting closer as well.

Ms. REINHARD: It's looking like Marco Rubio may have a fighting chance. As you know, he raised about a million dollars in the last quarter, which is not a benchmark anyone expected him to hit when he got into this race. He's also won several - they call them straw polls. They're basically like a unofficial vote at a local club meeting. He's won a bunch of those around the state. And tonight there's one in Palm Beach County, which is, you know, the third largest county. And a loss for Crist would be, you know, another blow to his image as the presumptive nominee.

CONAN: In the meantime, of course, there's going to be a Democrat running for Senate seat too.

Ms. REINHARD: Right. Congressman Kendrick Meek from Miami is the frontrunner in that race, though, he does have some competition. The former mayor of Miami, Maurice Ferre, just joined the race. He's considered a long shot. Kendrick Meek's fundraising slowed down a little bit in this last quarter, but that's pretty typical for the summertime.

CONAN: Miami Herald. And, Ken, she was talking about the Democrats are lining up to running…

Ms. REINHARD: Hello?

RUDIN: We may have lost Neal. So, Beth, okay…

Ms. REINHARD: I'm still here.

RUDIN: I'm sorry, Beth. Okay, so we may have lost Neal in this. But on the Senate race itself, I mean, Mel Martinez, the only Hispanic Republican…

Ms. REINHARD: Right.

RUDIN: …Latino Republican in the Senate. And then you have Marco Rubio who is also Cuban-American. It could show a pretty much of a family feud among the Republicans as well.

Ms. REINHARD: Right. I mean, slowly, as Governor Crist's power has, over time -he's not quite as invincible as he used to be. More Republicans are willing (unintelligible) that they would say with Marco (unintelligible). Whether that will be enough for him to win in a huge state like this remains to be seen.

CONAN: And I think the line has been reestablished.

RUDIN: Oh, phooey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Beth, as you look at these races in Florida, coming up, money is a huge amount of this. You mentioned a million dollars raised by Mr. Rubio. Is money flowing freely to candidates in both parties?

Ms. REINHARD: It's a good question. I mean, we expected that this would be a really tough election cycle, obviously, considering a recession. But, you know, some candidates have still managed to do quite well. Governor Crist broke records last quarter, raising $4.3 million. It's more than any other Senate candidate has ever raised, except with the exception of Rudy Giuliani when he ran for the Senate in New York. His fundraising did slow down a little bit to $2.4 million as I wrote it - it slowed down to a breakneck pace; that's still a lot of money.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. REINHARD: But in Florida, only one week of television time costs a million dollars. So in these statewide races, they are very dependent on money.

CONAN: Beth Reinhard, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Ms. REINHARD: Thanks.

CONAN: Beth Reinhard, a political writer for The Miami Herald, joined us today by phone from her home in Fort Lauderdale. And, of course, Ken Rudin was stealing my chair there in Studio 3A in Washington. Ken, as always, thanks very much.

RUDIN: Try getting it back, Neal.

CONAN: Ken Rudin, our Political Junkie, NPR's political editor.

Stay with us. In just a moment, report on the death penalty controversy here in Ohio.

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