President Obama To Take Health Care Debate Back To The Airwaves

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President Obama will host a televised bipartisan meeting with congressional leaders on health care Thursday. The event is intended to revive the momentum for the Democrats' health care overhaul plan. Host Lynn Neary talks with two members of the House Financial Services committee — Republican Scott Garrett of New Jersey and Democrat Jim Himes of Connecticut— about what they hope and expect from tomorrow's summit.

LYNN NEARY, host:

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

Coming up, Toyota executives grilled by lawmakers over safety problems. We'll hear from a former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in just a few minutes.

But first, we look ahead to tomorrow's bipartisan health care meeting. The much anticipated gatherinng is intended to revive discussion on what was Mr. Obama's top agenda item last year. Supporters say it will be a show of transparency by the White House and an effort to reach across the political aisle for Republican input on health care. Critics say it's nothing more than political theatre.

Here to talk about this are two members from the House Financial Services Committee - Congressman Scott Garrett, a Republican representing New Jersey's Fifth District; and Congressman Jim Himes, a Democrat representing Connecticut's Fourth District. Welcome to you both.

Representative JIM HIMES (Democrat, Connecticut): Good to be with you.

Representative SCOTT GARRETT (Republican, New Jersey): Hi, Lynn.

NEARY: I would like to start with you, Congressman Garrett. There's a Washington Post article today that talks about how much discussion there's been over the shape of the table and where the meeting is being held - should it be round, should it be square? And that discussion prompted a comment by White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs. So let's listen to that first.

Rep. GARRETT: Sure.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): Let me tell you, if the biggest thing that we debate on Thursday is the shape of the table, then I could understand the utter disgust and contempt that the American people might have.

NEARY: So Congressmen, this sort of mini debate over the shape of the table may be just a small reflection of how very contentious the entire debate over health care has been. Republicans have been labeled obstructionists. Given the current atmosphere, what are you hoping will come out of tomorrow's meeting?

Rep. GARRETT: Well, let me just say at the outset, if I was invited, I would not care whether it's a round table or a square table or a triangular table.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. GARRETT: Jim, you agree with me on that one?

Rep. HIMES: I'm with you on that, totally.

NEARY: Okay.

Rep. GARRETT: There are a number of contentious issues here. And, on a serious note - on a flippant(ph) note, as regarding the - I didn't see that Post article - but regarding the preliminary issues of table size, that sort of thing - we just had a GOP conference - what was it, yesterday morning? I guess it was. None of that was discussed, whatsoever, by our leadership who, I guess, would be the guys who would actually be going and sitting at that table.

Everything that was discussed at that conference, about the meeting that's about to happen, was substantive. Okay? Basically, this is the opposition here. This is the opposition on this. This is what we'd like to see here. Here's where we can move on this or whatever, you know? It was all the big-ticket items, if you will, as far as what needs to be done. Because at the end of the day, I don't care which side of the aisle you're on, Republican or Democrat, everyone agrees something needs to be done with regard to our health care and our health care delivery - as for insurance in this country. We just have to see how we can come together as elected officials and get it done.

NEARY: Can you give any examples of specifics that were discussed at these preliminary meetings?

Rep. GARRETT: Yeah, yeah, sure. I mean, this is nothing secret about this. I mean, one of the issues I've been involved with in the past is the ability to be able to buy insurance outside of your state. I come from the State of New Jersey, as you know. Our state has implemented a lot of the things that President Obama has already talked about, and what has the result of that been?

What the result has been is, a dozen years ago in New Jersey, if you wanted to buy insurance, there was a dozen or so insurance companies you could buy from. Then they implemented a whole bunch of regulations and reform, if you will, in New Jersey. Now, if you're the individual market, that means you don't get it through your boss, and you want to buy insurance - there's only like four or five companies that have done it.

So we realized that what we've done in Jersey on these things, hasn't worked. So we realize also that some of the proposals the administration is talking about on some of these things, probably won't work. So one idea is allow you to buy outside your state, not just in little regions, such as that, but all the way across the state, give you the freedom and the liberty, if you will, to choose what you think you really need for you and your family.

NEARY: Congressman Himes - and I apologize Congressman Himes, I identified you as being from New Jersey in my introduction and you actually represent a district in Connecticut. But, you know, it's not only Republicans that are expressing concern about health care. Thirty-nine House Democrats voted against health care - the health care bill. What does the president need to do to bring Democrats back to the negotiation table? Those Democrats.

Rep. HIMES: Well, I think the objective tomorrow is less about persuading Democrats or even persuading Republicans, than about having yet another public discussion of what is probably the most complicated public policy issue that most of us will ever deal with - and certainly that the American public will deal with. So it's going to be a long meeting. There's going to be lots of ideas floated. Anybody who thinks that there's not going to be a scoreboard there and that there won't be some attempt to score some partisan points, of course, hasn't spent a lot of time in Washington.

But underlying this, is going to be a discussion about the fundamental objectives on how we get there. How do we cover those 30-plus million Americans who don't have coverage right now? How do we reduce the cost growth that we see in such black and white terms - this week, in particular - as we see Anthem in California, asking for 39 percent increases?

You know, Scott and I worked together in a variety of things and I think we fundamentally agree that we need to achieve those things. And I think it's fair to say that my party, the Democrats, could do more to be more aggressive on the cost-cutting side. And I also think it's fair to say that the proposals made by the Republican Party, to date, have really not emphasized or haven't seriously addressed the challenge of covering those 31 - 36 million Americans who don't have coverage.

So in as much as we can kind of find ways to bridge those gaps tomorrow and in the subsequent legislation, this would have been a very good thing.

NEARY: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and we're discussing the president's upcoming televised health care summit that's taking place tomorrow. We're speaking with Congressman Scott Garrett of New Jersey and Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut. And I'd like both of you to tell me your reaction to the president's current health care proposal. Congressman Garrett, why don't we start with you?

Rep. GARRETT: You mean, the new proposal...

NEARY: Yes. Yes.

Rep. GARRETT: ...they just came out with this week.

NEARY: Yeah.

Rep. GARRETT: Well, I was under the program - won't say which one it was - and the reporter said, is this just a cobbling together of what the Senate bill was like and the House bill was like. And I said, you know, that's a pretty good way to describe it - cobbling together. Both of which, as Jim has already pointed out, had not been able to get through the process entirely, both of which has had bipartisan opposition to. I forgot the number - 38 or 39 Democrats voted against the House bill, was it?

So, if all you're going to do is just take those two failed bills and put them together in a new one and say here it is, let's go with this, that's probably not going to get the job done. And to Jim's point, I think he's right on this. He and I work on financial service stuff, which is hugely complicated. This health material is hugely complicated. Maybe really what the solution is to try to get things accomplished is to break it down into pieces, the financial service stuff - we just had a meeting on this morning - and health care, break them down into individual parts.

I threw out the one idea to your question before, put that as a bill. Let's see if we can get that piece of legislation done next month or what have you, boom, get it done. Take another piece of it done. One last point, if I have a second. Jim also mentioned something we agreed on which is the cost - increase in growth, you said Jim, right? That's an area that he and I probably could come to a whole bunch of agreements on how to tackle some of the actual growth in health care costs. Let's put those things together and you could get a whole lot done while we argue for a long time on some of the other problems there is.

NEARY: Congressman Himes?

Rep. HIMES: Well, I agree with much of what Scott said. I guess, I would quibble with the notion that the bills that were put forward in the House and the Senate were failed bills. Let's face it. They passed both chambers with very solid majorities. Now we have this quirk in the United States Senate that means it requires 60 senators to stop debate. And when 60 senators stop debate, what they're doing is they're saying this will not come up for a majority vote. And so now we have a situation where we're not going to get 60 votes to stop debate, but the purpose of that, of course, is to stop majority rule.

So, look, both Houses passed this thing. So the notion that it's is a failed bill, or failed bills, is I think incorrect. Look, they're not perfect bills. They never will be and we will be, you know, adjusting and amending and working on this for decades yet to come. But look, both of those bills and the president's current bill does do some very, very important thing.

First, with respect to the deficit that people care a lot about, the CBO, the nonpartisan sort of watchdog, says that the Senate bill, which is largely what the president's bill is based on, would reduce the deficit by 100 billion in the first decade and by substantially more than that in the second decade. It would lift the ability of insurance companies to turn Americans down because they have a pre-existing condition, something that millions of Americans stumble into every single year.

NEARY: Hmm.

Rep. HIMES: It would close the donut hole for our seniors and it would cover 31 million Americans. Those are all really, really good things that we should and must do. Are there things about the president's proposal that we need to talk about and perhaps change? Absolutely. And I think that's the point of the discussion tomorrow.

NEARY: Congressman Garrett, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch had an opinion piece in USA Today suggesting that Congress start from scratch. Does that make sense at this point, to begin all over again? What's to be gained from that?

Rep. GARRETT: Well, what's to be gained from that is the true bipartisanship that the president has been talking about that I really thought he meant when he said that they were going to get together on the 25th and work in a bipartisan matter. You really don't get a bipartisan approach if you have the president at the White House on the 25th saying, here's my new plan, I want to talk to you about it. Meanwhile back here on the ranch, Speaker Pelosi, at the House I should say, Speaker Pelosi in the House and Harry Reid in the Senate says, well we're still pushing along a headstrong 100 percent to try to get the original bills through the House, through the Senate through reconciliation. That's not bipartisanship. That's saying if you don't like the agreement we're going to give you on the 25th, we're still going to do it anyway.

Going to a clean slate and say, let's take these issues one by one and see where we can come to an agreement on them would be the best way to do it. And one little quick point, as far as the cost savings, you're right, Jim. We will - the CBO does say that you save money over the first 10 years. But, you know, the way they do that is by not spending the money because a lot of it doesn't -the spending doesn't get kicked in until halfway down the road on those 10 years. And you're right, they say - that it may help the deficit in the next 10 years but, you know, the way to do that is simply by raising taxes, some of which will be on a senior population.

NEARY: Let me get Congressman Himes in here for the last word. We have about a minute left and I'm just wondering what you think about this idea of starting over. I mean, would it produce a different outcome do you think?

Rep. HIMES: Well, let's be very clear on what it means to start over. I've only been in Washington for a year but there is no doubt that starting over means let's kill the bill. What does it mean to start over? I mean, let's take a -let's take the example that Scott talked about, which we could have a really good debate on: selling insurance across state lines. I was actually pushed hard to allow that to happen within regions. I'm a little uncomfortable with the notion that it's going to happen nationally because I don't want all the insurance companies to find one state that has really weak regulations and register there and offer a weak price, but that's a good debate.

What does it mean to start from scratch? Does that mean that we shouldn't even have that debate? What we're saying is, that's a good debate, let's have it tomorrow, let's have it in the coming weeks and get something done.

NEARY: All right Congressman Himes, thanks so much. Congressman Scott Garrett is a Republican who represents New Jersey's 5th District. And Congressman Jim Himes is a Democrat who represents Connecticut's 4th District and they both are members of the House Financial Services Committee. They were kind enough to join us from Capitol Hill. Thanks so much to both of you.

Rep. GARRETT: Thank you.

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