Durbin: Democrats Ready To Go Solo On Health Plan

Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin says overhauling health care is a big issue. He tells Steve Inskeep that if necessary, Democrats will go ahead on the legislation without Republicans if they can't get some GOP support.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Democrats attending the President's summit say they are willing to work with the other side, but also prepared to work around them. We sat down with Richard Durbin, the Illinois Democrat, on the eve of the televised summit.

When you are sitting at that table, are you going to be sitting with people you believe are negotiating or talking with you in good faith?

RICHARD DURBIN: I always assume that and I think the president does, too. And I hope at the end of the day that I will be surprised as I was Monday night when five Republicans broke ranks and joined us to pass the very first jobs bill here this year. I really believe there is a sentiment, a constructive sentiment, on the Republican side that would like to see us reach a goal and get something done. I hope some of those people will be there tomorrow.

INSKEEP: Because you've spent a year on this, I would think that if there were outlines of a settlement, that some reasonably large number of Republicans could support you to know what it is.

DURBIN: Well, you think so, wouldn't you? And many of the provisions that Republican Senators said were important, we included in the bill. Maybe this, just maybe this opportunity with the president will give them a chance to step out and say all right, with these changes, we can get on board this bill.

INSKEEP: Some Republicans are asking why the president would go through the theater, the drama, of this bipartisan meeting, at the same time that many people in your party here in the Senate are talking about ways to pass healthcare without any Republican support at all.

DURBIN: First, a word about the theater. You know, over the last several months, this notion of transparency, do it in front of the cameras, let's have an open conference committee, as the president spoke about during his campaign.

INSKEEP: He promised it on (unintelligible)...

DURBIN: Yes, exactly. And so the president has said we're going to do it. So, the theater aspect of this has really been at the request of both sides. The fact is that the president can be an important cohesive force here. I hope that he can appeal to the Republicans to step up and join us and get this done.

INSKEEP: Although, at the same time that you're preparing for this meeting, people in your party have been talking quite seriously and trying to build support for the notion of reconciliation, which is a process by which you could pass health care with 51 votes - all of them Democrats - instead of 60, at least one of whom would have to be Republican.

DURBIN: It's a procedure that's been used 21 times in the Senate since 1981, more often by Republicans by Democrats, to pass things as major as Reagan tax cuts and the Newt Gingrich Contract with America. But we're preparing for that. There's nothing to say, though, that that reconciliation process cannot include some Republican ideas that ultimately might win Republican votes.

INSKEEP: What do you mean you're preparing for it?

DURBIN: Well, what we're trying to do is to find a way that the House and the Senate can agree on a final package. You know, the first step is in the House of Representatives. That's where reconciliation begins. And I really defer it to Speaker Pelosi. She has an important responsibility and a tough one - to put together a majority vote, to make sure that we get the underlying bill passed as well as reconciliation. And it is not a small task. It is a big undertaking.

INSKEEP: Why do you think things have gone so wrong with this bill?

DURBIN: It's a big bill. It's a big issue. Congress doesn't tackle these issues very often. It's been decades. People get angry, emotions get high. There are strong special interest forces here. There are a lot of people making money on the current system who don't want to see it changed.

You know, those are the realities of political life on Capitol Hill. And that's why it's been so tough and no president's been able to do it.

INSKEEP: Still, it was assumed that this president with big majorities in Congress was going to get it one year ago, and now it seems to be assumed that you're on the verge of losing it.

DURBIN: I wouldn't say we're on the verge of losing it. I'd say we're on the verge of passing this bill in a different form - and we should. We can't give up at this point.

INSKEEP: Are you willing to say, flat-out, Democrats are willing to pass this bill that most Americans tell pollsters they oppose, even without a single Republican vote? We're prepared to do that if that's necessary?

DURBIN: I hope it doesn't come to that. But I can tell you, at the end of the day if we end up doing nothing the American people have a right to be upset. In the end, many of those who were critical of that package, I think when they see it in action are going to feel a lot different, more positive.

INSKEEP: You hope it doesn't come to that, but part of the negotiation with Republicans would be that you would be prepared to go without them if they don't go along. Are you prepared to go without them and just pass this, even though people seem to oppose it?

DURBIN: Of course we are. You know, the simple fact of the matter is, with the exception of Senator Snowe, voting for one form of the bill in committee, there's not been a single Republican senator who has voted for health care reform. They just haven't come around. Maybe this meeting with the president will make a difference.

INSKEEP: Senator Durbin, thanks very much.

DURBIN: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: Richard Durbin is the number two Democrat in the Senate. He'll be part of the televised meeting today.

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INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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