Senators Could Spend Christmas Unwrapping Health Care

As many Americans gather to the celebrate the Christmas holiday next week, U.S. Senators could find themselves sitting on the Senate floor. It's all part of a high stakes negotiation to meet the President's challenge to pass a health care bill by Christmas. Host Michel Martin speaks with House Majority Whip James Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina, and Sen. Roland Burris, a Democrat from Illinois, discuss what must happen for the bill to win each of their support and why they say the road to passage is more complex than it seems.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, as the U.S. debates same sex marriage, Uganda moves in the opposite direction. Although homosexuality is already illegal in that country, the parliament there is considering new legislation that would impose even harsher penalties in some cases. But we asked, did a group of American evangelicals who visited the country earlier this year play a role? We'll ask one of the men who made that trip in just a few minutes.

But first, our weekly political chat. While many Americans will be opening gifts and sitting down to holiday dinners next week, U.S. senators might be sitting on the Senate floor. That's if their leaders follow through on threats to hold the health care vote on Christmas Eve or even Christmas Day. It's all part of a high stakes negotiation to meet the president's challenge to pass a health care bill by Christmas. But Senate Republicans have been balking, employing delaying tactics like having the bill read in its entirety on the Senate floor. But the bigger issue may be among the Democrats, who are still divided over key provisions and every one of their votes is needed to pass a bill.

Now, much attention has been focused on conservatives who say the bill is too expensive and doesn't do enough to restrict abortion funding, but every vote is needed. So we decided to call a senator who has previously said he will not vote for a bill without a government-run option for the uninsured - the junior senator from Illinois, Roland Burris. We've also called a member of the congressional leadership, the House leadership, House Majority Whip James Clyburn - he represents South Carolina's Sixth District - for his perspective. I welcome you both. Thank you for joining us.

Representative JAMES CLYBURN (Democrat, South Carolina): Well, thank you so much for having us.

Senator ROLAND BURRIS (Democrat, Illinois): My pleasure, Michel, good to be with you.

MARTIN: Well, thank you, Senator. Senator, you've been with us before to talk about your perspective on the health care bill. And the last time you spoke with us you were adamant that if this Senate overhaul bill did not contain a so-called public option - that would be a government run health insurance program for people who do not have access to private insurance - you said you would not vote for the bill. You said it's time to do it, it's time to do it right, and it's time to do it for the benefit of those who are uninsured. It appears that a public option has now been taken out of this bill. Will you still vote for it?

Sen. BURRIS: Well, Michel, my position has not changed. And of course I am still looking for the goal of the public option. And when you read the statement, all the statements that I have made, you will see that I have said the goal to me of a public option would be that it would have competition in the bill, there will be cost savings, and then the insurance companies will have accountability. My whole issue was to do something about the exorbitant rates that insurance companies are charging, and so it came up with this label, public option. But the key is competition, cost and accountability. And so we are still in the process of scoring that bill and I have not seen all the details. So I'll have to see what comes out of the final scoring and we will get the final package together.

MARTIN: But the Medicare buy-in option which was proposed has been apparently taken out. How is this goal that you articulated being fulfilled?

Sen. BURRIS: Well, if you look at - if we cover 31 million individuals and the cost would be going down, then there's certainly a possibility (unintelligible) that I have to see the CBO's report in terms of what the cost is going to be. But we also must have competition, and of course when you've got competition, you're going into the exchanges. There are provisions in that bill that would limit insurance, have to pay out 90 percent of their receipt. So you'll have that type of provisions in the legislation which certainly could give my satisfaction if they're there.

MARTIN: So you are saying if the goals are achieved, even if it isn't called a public option, you would be satisfied.

Sen. BURRIS: That is correct, and we got hooked on this thing called a public option. My thing was, we have to do something about reigning in the insurance companies. That's the key. If we don't do that, we won't be afford to have - we won't be able to afford health insurance for the next four or five years. Families will be devastated with the costs going up in insurance.

MARTIN: Congressman Clyburn, let's have your perspective. Do you feel that the bill is still alive? I understand that the action now is on the Senate side, but the House would play a role if the Senate does pass a bill, so we just have your perspective on whether the bill is still alive?

Rep. CLYBURN: Yes, Michel, thank you so much for having us on the show. I have said from day one that the goals as the Senator just expressed are to increase competition and decrease cost, build in accountability, and do something that will provide choice for our - for any enrollee. Now, when you have those things, the label you put on it really will not matter all that much, and so I have never drawn a line in the sand on the so-called public option. Because you may recall I was one of those who kept warning to be careful with this robust public option because I did not feel at the time that it yielded what a lot of people thought it would yield.

And so I believe that we should concentrate on getting those four things done and worry about the label later. I also believe that people have to keep in mind that the Senate is a very important body, but it's not the only body in town.

We produced a real good product out of the House, and we still, no matter what the Senate comes up with - we've got to go to conference and there will be a different product coming out of that conference than what the Senate sends to it. So all of this is still very much alive, and I do believe we can get a very good health care plan as a foundation to build upon. I will say to all of your listeners, let's be careful about drawing lines in the sand. I remember I was around back when we passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and that's what we are trying to do here.

We are trying to come up with a big bill that will establish health care as a fundamental right for every American citizen, and when you do that you are going to really bite off some real big chunks that will be tough to chew. So let's look at the Civil Rights Act. Look at this as we looked the Civil Rights Act in �64. A lot of people back then wanted voting rights to be a part of the Civil Rights Act of '64. In order to pass that bill which outlawed discrimination in the private sector, in employment, we had to rip voting rights out of it. And so we passed the bill in �64 without voting rights. We came back one year later and we passed the Civil Rights - the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We got employment discrimination outlawed in �64. We gave the voting rights in �65. We outlawed discrimination in Housing in �68 and we did not get employment to the public sector until �72. So let's pass a good solid plan that will allow us to build a foundation to build upon.

MARTIN: If you are just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are having our weekly political chat. And we are speaking with House Majority Whip James Clyburn. He represents South Carolina's 6th district. He is, of course, a Democrat. We are also speaking with Illinois Senator Roland Burris.

Senator Burris, what about your former party chairman Howard Dean? He says just scrap the whole thing and start over.

Sen. BURRIS: Michel, it will be just totally irresponsible to kill the bill. We have been working on this health care legislation for more than 97 years. And we've come further at this time than any other Congress in history. And I agree with President Obama when he says that there will not be another president ever that will work on this starter of a health care reform legislation. I agree with the congressman.

MARTIN: And�

Sen. BURRIS: He is absolutely, positively correct. We have to go to the conference. That's the reason why, you know, I'm saying that I need to see what's coming out even out of the (unintelligible) on the CBO because, you know, and then what we send over there, I'm hoping and praying that we will get a decent bill out of it. But that bill has to go to conference. The conference�

MARTIN: And you're saying the delay doesn't give - buy you anything. Are you willing to stay through Christmas, if that's what it takes?

Sen. BURRIS: Well, that's my job. We have to be here on something this important. We are talking about insuring most of the 47 million Americans who don't have insurance and then trying to reform the whole health care system. There's something in that bill for everybody, for women's rights, to taking out preexisting conditions. All of those improvements will be in the base bill and then we can improve on those later on. And that's what we must do. We have never come this far, Michel. And, therefore, we can not kill this legislation. I'm sorry, my distinguished former chairman and governor and Dr. Dean is not correct on this issue.

MARTIN: But before I let you go, we only have about a couple of minutes left, I wanted to ask each of you about the climate change talks going on in Copenhagen, right now. The president spoke, earlier today and he didn't sound very encouraging. He said that while the reality of climate change is not a doubt, I have to be honest, as the world watches us today, I think our ability to take collective action is in doubt right now.

So, I would like to ask each of you as we - in the last couple of minutes that we have left, do you think that an agreement is possible and will you be very disappointed if there is not one. Senator Burris first then I'll ask you Mr. Clyburn.

Sen. BURRIS: Well, Michel, I think that we'll have to see what we can get out of Copenhagen. I don't think that we're going to be able to get everything at this point either. And what we have to deal with and it's a very key issue and that is global warming. It is key, it has to be dealt with and I'm pretty sure what we are hoping to get out of there and what the president is hoping to do is to get a starter. I haven't followed all of it as to what his comments were but I know we must do something about global warming.

MARTIN: Okay, Mr. Clyburn, a final thought from you. We have about a minute and a half?

Rep. CLYBURN: Well, I do believe as I believe with health care. If we can get something out of Copenhagen that can lay a foundation, it would be a signal to both China and the United States as to where - what direction they ought to be moving in. We have to be very, very careful because what this issue is, is big economic competition between China and the United States of America.

So, we cannot come out with a plan as I think, Robert Gibbs, said the other day, it's best to leave there empty handed with - than to have some kind of a empty proposal. We have to have to be - we have to be very, very careful that we do not agree to something that will hamstring the American economy in such a way that China will, you know, eat our lunch, so to speak.

MARTIN: Hmm.

Rep. CLYBURN: And so, I am hopeful that they will do something. But I do believe that we can still continue here in the United States of America of building a green economy because I'm convinced that that is what - where the future is. And so, we've got to do it irrespective of what comes out of Copenhagen.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. I thank you�

Sen. BURRIS: And there are lot of jobs in the green economy, too. So, that's another issue. There will be jobs that will come back.

MARTIN: Okay. All right.

Sen. BURRIS: Thank you, Michel. Thanks.

MARTIN: Senator Roland Burris is the senior senator from Illinois. He is a Democrat. He was kind enough to join us from the studios on Capitol Hill. Congressman James Clyburn is the House Majority Whip. He also represents - he represents, of course, South Carolina's 6th Congressional District. And he joined us from his home office in Columbia, South Carolina. Gentleman, I thank you both so much for speaking to us and happy holidays to you both.

Rep. CLYBURN: Same to you.

Senator BURRIS: Happy holidays.

Rep. CLYBURN: Thank you.

Sen. BURRIS: Same to you and all of your listeners.

MARTIN: Still to come, homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda but now the parliament is considering a new bill that would encourage citizens to report homosexuals to the police.

GWEN THOMPKINS: This is going to dissuade anyone who works in the health care profession in Uganda from wanting to help any one who is gay.

MARTIN: The legal attack on gay rights in Uganda, that's coming up next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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