Ex-Sen. Daschle: Health Bill A 'Giant Leap Forward'

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One of the key players in the Senate's health care battle is actually a former player — Tom Daschle. Guy Raz talks with the former Senate Majority Leader about his role in swaying Nebraska's Ben Nelson and helping round up the 60 votes needed to pass the bill.

GUY RAZ, host:

And as I mentioned earlier, one of the key behind-the-scenes players in rounding up the 60 votes needed to pass the health care bill is former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who's on the line with me now.

Senator Daschle, welcome to the program.

Mr. TOM DASCHLE (Democrat, Former Senate Majority Leader): Thank you. Good to be back.

RAZ: We've just heard the details of the compromise to get the votes: no public option, restrictions on funding for abortions. Some progressive Democrats are arguing that the bill has been watered down too much. What's your response?

Mr. DASCHLE: Well, I think that there are concerns about the degree to which it's been watered down. But I have to say, this is a giant leap forward for health insurance in this country. For the first time, everybody's going to have access. For the first time, everybody's going to have the confidence that they're never going to be dropped, that they're going to be able to get insurance regardless of circumstances. And ultimately, we're going to be able to control costs a lot more effectively and improve quality.

That is a huge bite of the apple. We've got a long way to go, but this is far better than what we'd have with the status quo.

RAZ: Just to be precise, my understanding is that 94 percent of Americans will be covered under this bill; not 100 percent.

Mr. DASCHLE: Well, it's true that everyone will not be covered initially, but it is also true that everyone will be eligible. Everyone will have an opportunity. There will be some who won't get it for various reasons, mostly their own volition. But nonetheless, this is as close to universal access as we've ever been in history.

RAZ: Are you disappointed that there's no public option in this bill now?

Mr. DASCHLE: Well, there're a lot of disappointments. But as I say, you know, it's so trite - and I almost am embarrassed to repeat it again - but we can't make the perfect the enemy of the good. And, you know, I was part of making the perfect the enemy of the good 15 years ago and we got nothing.

You know, back in 1973, we made the perfect the enemy of the good and we got nothing. So we can get nothing or we can get good. We can get part of what we want and we can build on what we've got to make sure that we go farther in the years ahead. That to me is the lesson learned from 1993 and '94.

RAZ: Senator Daschle, describe for us the past few days and hours. You were involved in persuading Senator Ben Nelson to back this bill. It seems like he became, for a moment in time, the most powerful man in the U.S. Senate.

Mr. DASCHLE: Well, we have a lot of people that were in that category that fortunately came to terms with their own issues regarding the bill earlier. But I would say every one of the 60 who vote for this are very, very powerful people. He happened to be the last.

RAZ: But I mean, in a sense, Senator Ben Nelson was holding this bill up and agreed to support it in exchange for things like funding Medicaid in his state entirely with federal money. Now, most other states don't get that kind of special treatment. Why is that fair?

Mr. DASCHLE: Listen, there are a lot of senators who fight for their states in a number of ways and Ben Nelson is no different in that regard. Is it entirely fair? Probably not. But, you know, we've got to work at, again, trying to accomplish the good and not the perfect.

RAZ: So, is there any question now of whether a health care bill will now pass? I mean, is that question resolved?

Mr. DASCHLE: Oh, I think we still have some major hurdles. You know, we probably are at about 70 percent chance of passage, but we still have to go through a conference with the House, and there's still issues that have to be resolved. But I think we're moving much more closely. This is an extraordinarily important moment and never have we been this close to enactment.

RAZ: Tom Daschle, let me ask you about the long-term strategy here. I think it's fair to say that everyone, both supporters and opponents, are in some way disappointed with parts of this bill. But is the strategy as far as you understand, at least among Democrats, to get something passed now, to put it down on paper and then to make it more comprehensive in the future?

Mr. DASCHLE: Oh, no question. I would say that we're probably on the 30-yard line. We're 70 yards to go in terms of especially payment and delivery reform. You know, we've come a long way with insurance reform, but we still even have some distance to go with that.

RAZ: I mean, but that, of course, leads to fears among opponents of the bill that this is sort of a Trojan horse. That in the future, Democrats really plan to just create a single-payer system.

Mr. DASCHLE: Well, it's going to take a majority vote or probably 60 votes in the Senate to do anything. So we're not going to be any different then than we are now. We know we've got a lot of work to do. I think we can continue to make the case that work needs to be done. We'll save those debates and those questions for another day.

RAZ: That's former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who worked behind the scenes on behalf of the White House to help collect 60 votes to pass a health care bill.

Senator Daschle, thank you so much.

Mr. DASCHLE: My pleasure.

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