Health Care Summit Was 'Uplifting'

The people who watched the health overhaul summit include Dana Milbank, who writes a column on political theater in the capital for The Washington Post. Milbank tells Steve Inskeep the process was "uplifting" because lawmakers demonstrated that they were serious and knowledgeable.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Talk about hard efforts. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post watched the entire summit yesterday. Is this correct, Mr. Milbank?

Mr. DANA MILBANK (Columnist, Washington Post): It is correct, Mr. Inskeep. I've put in for hardship pay for the assignment, even though it was done from the comfort of my desk. You know, I think the Democrats like to call the Republicans the party of no, but really the only people who could've enjoyed all seven hours of that would be the party of NoDoz, I'd say.

INSKEEP: Ouch, ouch. And yet, and yet, Dana, in your review in the Washington Post you use the word uplifting to describe this process of everybody sitting around a table talking.

Mr. MILBANK: It really was, because we're so used to attack ads. We're so used to name calling, foul language even. And here they were, everybody was behaved. I think it was Joe Barton, a Republican Congressman from Texas, who said never before have so many members of the House and Senate behaved so well for so long in front of so many television cameras.

It's not exactly Churchillian, but it did speak to what was happening in that room yesterday. And everybody was expressing their disagreements. I don't think any new ground was broken, but they were for once at least behaving in a civil fashion. And, you know, baby steps. We'll take that at this day and age.

INSKEEP: There was a lot of negotiation about the seeding chart to make sure that nobody was above anybody else, that everybody looked equal, but it was President Obamas meeting to manage, I suppose.

Mr. MILBANK: Yeah, the Republicans were a little bit hesitant to get involved in this in the first place, and I think you could see why, yesterday. In theory, everybody would have a chance to speak, but there was one professor in that room and that was Professor Obama. He addressed them all by first name. They had to address him by Mr. President.

He would wag his finger at them. He would - after they would make their points, he would cut them off if theyd gone too longer. He would say whether or not their points were legitimate or not. And he, I think, at various points, he made it look as if somebody had to sit in the corner and wear the dunce cap.

INSKEEP: Im thinking of one particular scene in which Paul Ryan, the Republican Congressman, looks him right in the eye and says, your budget numbers dont make sense in this health care bill, and your cutting Medicare. Obama gets a chance, then, to respond - the president gets a chance to respond, and say as for the numbers lets not worry about that. Lets not talk about the numbers right now, but your Medicare thing is wrong. He got to set the terms of the debate and then moved the discussion on the way that he wanted to do.

Mr. MILBANK: He did it over and over again. It even got to the point where Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, said, well, hello, Mr. President. You know, weve only had 24 minutes on the Republican side, and Democrats have had 52 minutes, and the president was puzzled at first and he said, you know why? Thats because Im the president.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILBANK: And that, you know, when youre the president and you invite them over to Blair House, youre in charge, and thats how its going to happen.

INSKEEP: But what about the guy who would have been president, John McCain?

Mr. MILBANK: That was a tough time for John McCain, who we have to remember has a difficult primary challenge from a conservative former lawmaker. So, he was definitely on the attack. I think the last time we saw an attack like that, you know, Joe, the Plumber was involved. But he was going on and on with Obama, the various problems with his proposal. And finally the president said, hey, look John, the campaign's over. And I think it really cut him down and it made him seem like yeah, hes just a backbencher now.

INSKEEP: Tell me about some body language. There was another point at which McCain complained about this deal shady sounding deal - for Medicare recipients in Florida, and the presidents response to McCain was, thats a legitimate point, John.

Mr. MILBANK: Right. Completely disarmed McCain because he was looking for a fight, spoiling for a fight, and he was talking about these outrageous sweetheart deals and Obama just sat back and said, youre right. He didnt seem to know what to do. McCain looked like he was ready to attack some more, and he says, well, thank you, thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILBANK: And I had to replay it, because I thought Obama actually winked at him. But no, he just smiled and sort of tossed - tapped his pencil in that direction.

INSKEEP: Now, after all this polite discussion, it gets back to power politics, doesnt it?

Mr. MILBANK: Well it is, and I think a fair argument can be made that this was never really about some sort of a Kumbaya moment. It was - the point for the president to say, look, these guys just arent going to go along with our plan. It was laying down the predicate for, as Julie was saying in her report, whats going to happen next.

And that is most likely, the Democrats are going to do it on their own with a lower vote threshold. So, at least, the president can say, look, weve brought them in here, I was trying to be reasonable with them, theyre not being reasonable with us. It allows him to, at least for a day, to regain control of the debate.

INSKEEP: And try to get a little cover for Democrats to pass this bill without, apparently, any Republican support at all.

Mr. MILBANK: That appears to be exactly where its going and it is possible that seeing the president argue down the Republicans, one after the other, would embolden some of the Democrats. And theyre still pretty darn nervous up there.

INSKEEP: Dana, thanks very much.

Mr. MILBANK: My pleasure, Steve.

INSKEEP: Dana Milbank in our studios this morning. He writes for The Washington Post.

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