Political Chat: Health Care Summit, Rangel Investigation
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, as Black History Month comes to a close for this year, we catch up with Olympic speed skater Shani Davis, who made history in 2006 as the first African-American to win an individual medal at a Winter Olympic games. He repeated his winning ways last week. We'll ask him about what it takes to be a champion, and how he really feels about the focus on his race as well as his performance. That's later in the program.
But first, more of the week in politics. Along with the jobs bill, the big news was the president's health care summit held yesterday. The six-hour gabfest, which was televised, was billed as a bid to break through the political stalemate on a health care overhaul. So, how did all that work out? Also, veteran lawmaker Charles Rangel, the chairman of the powerful House Ways And Means Committee was admonished by the House Ethics Committee for violating the rules on corporate gifts.
We wanted to know more about all that, so we've called Pam Gentry, senior political analyst with BET, Black Entertainment Television. She keeps us up-to-date on these issues. She's with us again, welcome. Thanks for joining us.
Ms. PAM GENTRY (Senior Political Analyst, BET): Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So, you know, everybody's talking about that health care summit as political theater. Now, you know, I don't know what's so terrible about that. I mean, you know, half of politics is theater. But now that it's over, what are the reviews coming in? Whose performance is being - you know, how are the performances being assessed?
Ms. GENTRY: I think there are mixed reviews. But I think that the best part of all of this reform was the back-and-forth sections, where there was clear disagreement in ideology or in how policy should be carried out, and both sides made their cases. I think the president also demonstrated his breadth of knowledge of the topics that his willingness to listen and, I think, his willingness to make some concessions if he felt that they were valid.
MARTIN: Well, he also demonstrated his willingness to fight on some of the to not sort of roll over. I just want to play a short clip from an exchange with Congressman Eric Cantor, the Republican whip. And this is the president kind of getting a little shot in there. Here it is.
President BARACK OBAMA: You know, when we do props like this, you stack it up, and you repeat 2,400 pages, et cetera, you know, the truth of the matter is, is that health care is very complicated. And we can try to pretend that it's not, but it is.
MARTIN: Okay. So, maybe it wasn't exactly a knife fight, but, you know...
Ms. GENTRY: Well, one of the - there was a knife fight with someone when he kind of reminded Senator John McCain, when he started speaking, you know, kind of giving the political rhetoric that they've been accused of doing on health care reform, he said to him, you know, John, the campaign is over. And I think those were the kinds of moments that the American public had to sit back and say, well, let's see exactly what they're talking about in substance.
MARTIN: Do you think at the end of the day that summit moved the debate along in either direction?
Ms. GENTRY: I don't know if it moved the debate along, but I wish it had happened maybe 13 months ago. I think that this public discussion of the back and forth and explaining the complexities of health care reform - because I worked at HHS, I understand that these are programs that there is no one small piece. And I think that's the one point that everyone made yesterday. You can't really do part of health care reform. You've got to do almost all of it because it is so intermingled.
MARTIN: Well, that's one side of it though, that's the Democratic argument - is it has to be comprehensive. The Republicans are saying that that's not so. That was Lamar Alexander's point, the senator from Tennessee.
Ms. GENTRY: Well, they've pulled out almost every part that they can. I mean, you know, if you look at how we're running health care now, we have like five different programs as it is, and so, there's only a little bit left and the largest part that's left are the uninsured.
MARTIN: So, a case was made and it kind of lays the groundwork for whatever happens next. Speaking of a case, Charlie Rangel. The chairman of the House Ways And Means Committee - that's the tax-writing committee, it's traditionally one of the most powerful committees on the Hill - faces discipline after House Ethics Committee finds that he violated House gift rules by accepting trips to the Caribbean, which were funded by a corporation. What do you think he will do in response to this? He gave a statement last night, very defiant, said, you know, I didn't...
Ms. GENTRY: The interesting part about this, when I first reported on this story as well, is that before they took this trip - this conference has been going on for about 13 years. Before they took this trip, they went to the Ethics Committee, and the Ethics Committee went over it and approved it and they all went on the trip. And then they get back from the trip, and this organization...
MARTIN: When you say they, who are you talking about?
Ms. GENTRY: I'm sorry. I think there was Congresswoman Kilpatrick - there were five members of the CBC. I think it was Kilpatrick, Bennie Thompson. I can't remember all the names right now.
MARTIN: So, five members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Ms. GENTRY: Right. They decide that they can go on this trip and they go on the trip. This organization called The National Legal and Policy Center has one of their representatives, the vice president - I think his name is Ken Bowland(ph). He goes down, takes his camera, shoots all these videos and photographs and says that this event was part of some - you know, that it was corporate-sponsored, and here are the sponsors, comes back, writes a long letter to the Ethics Committee, and to the general public, or members that support his organization saying Charlie Rangel and all of these folks went down here to this, you know, event. They shouldn't have been there.
And the Ethics Committee starts investigating. They end up coming back after all this time and they slap him on the wrist and say that he didn't know that this was corporate-sponsored. The Ethics Committee really didn't know it was corporate-sponsored - or, you know, approved it. But he should have known that his staff knew. And so they slap him on the wrist. It's convoluted to me. It's either that all of the members who went should've been admonished, or they should've decided to wait until they had more to make a decision.
MARTIN: Well, they didn't. They exonerated the other four, but they said that he deserved to be criticized for this. What about this? What are the implications? Republicans are saying he should step down, that his -he's just impaired as a leader because of this. Is there any sense that he will?
Ms. GENTRY: I don't think so because I don't think that Charles Rangel feels that he has done anything wrong. And he feels like he did make the right steps, going to the Ethics Committee, before taking the - and he also has to kind of stand up to this organization because they have sent out a letter, as of May 2009, The National Legal and - Council, saying that they've got to get him, you know, and help us get him. And there...
MARTIN: So, he's saying this is a partisan political attack and that's how it is.
Ms. GENTRY: Well, he doesn't say that. I'm saying it because I have their letters and I've seen the proof. He never mentions this organization. He never mentions who is really behind a lot of this investigations, but I'm saying that I think that they are motivated to go after him.
MARTIN: To be continued. Pam Gentry is the senior political analyst for BET, Black Entertainment Television. She's kind enough to drop by from time to time to keep us up to date on matters of Congress and the White House and so forth and politics in general. Pam, thank you so much for stopping by.
Ms. GENTRY: Always a pleasure.
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