Rep. Gutierrez On Why The Health Bill Has His Vote

The vote to overhaul the country's heath care system is expected to take place this weekend. President Obama and leaders in Congress say they are confident the bill will pass, but there are still holdouts. Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez was one of them — until yesterday when he announced his support for the bill. The Democratic representative threatened to withhold his vote due to the president's lack of movement on immigration reform. Host Michel Martin speaks with Gutierrez about health care and immigration.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up in Faith Matters, we'll hear about the Reverend Augustus Tolton. After a harrowing escape from slavery during the Civil War, he went on to become the first black Roman Catholic priest in the U.S. And now Cardinal Francis George of Chicago is lobbying for Tolton to become St. Augustus. We'll hear in just a few minutes.

But first, it's time for our political chat and talk about drama. The vote to overhaul the nation's health care and insurance systems are expected to take place this weekend. Votes are still being counted. And while the president and congressional leaders say they are confident of victory, there are still hold outs. Among them, until yesterday, was Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez, a longtime Obama supporter. Here's what he said earlier in the week.

Representative LUIS GUTIERREZ (Democrat, Illinois): I will not vote for the bill unless the White House begins to address the immigration issues both within the context of the bill and outside of the context in the bill.

MARTIN: Yesterday, Representative Gutierrez announced he will, in fact, vote for the bill. Also yesterday President Obama issued a statement in support of a new proposed, quote, framework for immigration reform. Joining us now to talk about all this is Representative Gutierrez himself. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Pleasure to be with you today, Michel.

MARTIN: So, what made you change your mind?

Rep. GUTIERREZ: First of all, the outline put online with The Washington Post, outline Senate outline for a comprehensive immigration reform package. White House immediately embrace the extent they can an outline reiterating their support for comprehensive immigration reform. There are other steps such as those that we talked to the White House about, that we're coordinating with them, which will unfold today.

Senator Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the Senate issued a statement we're hoping that as he sees the outline, as the outline becomes clearer in terms of legislative language. But things are headed in the right direction. I said, you know, I can support the bill, but we need to talk about this both within and outside the context of the language in the health care proposal.

I want this president to be successful. And as critical as I've been of him, that does not mean that I don't wish him, his administration the best because I think in the end, their success will be of great value.

MARTIN: Were you concerned that the president had walked away from pushing for an immigration overhaul at all? Because this was something that he campaigned strongly on.

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Let me try to put it in some context. When the president came before the House to address this last September many of you remember what Congressman Wilson said: You lie. Our president wasn't lying when he said there wouldn't be a dollar into this proposal for undocumented workers in this country, he said illegal aliens in this country.

Well, Michel, during the campaign, when he was out searching for the votes, there were undocumented workers. In the House, Florida (unintelligible) to the left to chastise the Republicans for maligning or misrepresenting his decision. He specifically denoted this. But then, you know, two days later he said even if an undocumented worker illegal, as he calls them now were to go and try to purchase in the exchange with his own money, with no government subsidy, they would be disallowed.

I thought that was mean. We should allow people to pay for their health care. Where are they going to receive it, in the emergency room? So, it was that backdrop to all of this. And so I said, let's talk a little bit more about immigration. You know what? We had a great meeting. So (unintelligible) happened.

MARTIN: Okay. But the health care bill that you're going to vote on does not have I was just going to say, the health care bill that you all are expected to vote in still does not allow undocumented or unauthorized persons to buy health insurance from these anticipated exchanges if they are out of status. And that is the reason that La Raza, which is one of the leading civil rights organizations, still is not supporting the bill. Despite that, you're still prepared to go forward. Why?

Rep. GUTIERREZ: I'm prepared to go forward because there was an outline published yesterday. I'm prepared to move forward because the president, I believe, has reengaged, renewed, refocused. You know, it's always how would I say it when you deal with other human beings, you know, you have to trust at some level. I'm prepared to move forward because there are many, many, many, many great things.

And in the end, look, we got the president focused. Look, I mean, let me tell you what I really about this administration vis-a-vis the Latino community specifically. He appointed a Supreme Court justice, a woman, Latina; more health care under the SCHIP program for children and for mothers; more money for education; more money for housing. I mean, there have been many steps this administration has taken and measures that I have supported unwaveringly in my votes in the House.

But in the end, when he's evaluated, it's all going to be about immigration in the end. That will be the cornerstone issue. So we've got to get it done. I don't see that voting against, given his new commitment, given the new dialogue, given the new conversations we've had with him, I don't see that voting against the health care bill is somehow going to help us get the comprehensive immigration reform.

If this bill is defeated, just from a purely political point of view, putting aside all of its great public policy initiatives that are contained within it, I think this presidency will be crippled maybe beyond the point of not being able to get anything done (unintelligible). And certainly, it will not be strengthened.

MARTIN: I see what you're saying.

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Let's stand behind him. We've had the conversations. You know, and understand, it is not easy to say no to a president of your party, the president that you wish for, a president that you campaigned for, it is not easy, but we did. And but those conversations, I think, are leading us to a better resolution, short term and long term.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez. He's a Democrat. We're talking about health care and immigration.

Just one more question on this point. The White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked about the president's top priorities after the health care vote. This is what he said. Let me just play it for you.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): After health care passes, I think that we will move on to many other extremely important issues. We've got several more bites at the economic apple in terms of small business lending, zero capital gains for small business on the economic side, as I mentioned, financial reform, the Citizens United campaign finance case, comprehensive energy legislation. I think there's no doubt there will be many, many more big issues with which the president deals with. Obviously, this is one he wants to see through.

MARTIN: So this was yesterday, he doesn't mention immigration. Do you think that that was a slip of the tongue, oversight, what?

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Yeah, you know, I look, I spoke to him yesterday. So, within right hours of those comments, I spoke to him. We shook hands. We spoke for a moment. He reiterated his support, told me we were going to get it done, told him I was going to vote for the bill. That's what it is. A lot of this is faith.

Let me just say that I am preparing for Sunday. Tens and thousands of people will be coming to Washington, D.C. This is far from over. In terms of how it is, our community will continue. The health care vote is but one vote.

We will be there Sunday. We will say we are not invisible. We will make it (unintelligible) clear and our voices will once again rise. And hopefully (unintelligible) will wake up that morning and see and hear us and make sure that we are part of key and central focus of when he speaks to the president.

MARTIN: Okay.

Rep. GUTIERREZ: It leaves one certainly questioning just how but maybe he hasn't got the memo yet, you know? I am still how would I say it I'm still going through my remarks Sunday.

MARTIN: Okay. That was going to be last question before I let you go, I need to...

Rep. GUTIERREZ: I haven't finished yet. I'm not going to let this...

MARTIN: So, you anticipate this was what I was going to ask you: What are you going to say?

Rep. GUTIERREZ: ...determine, you know, the fate of my remarks for Sunday. But how what I see occur today and tomorrow are going to determine how I feel because in the end we have to lead people correctly and give them our best stage of how they should act in the future.

MARTIN: You know, overall, if this president, since he's took office, people have been either criticizing him for taking on too much, saying he hasn't focused enough on this issue, the economy or jobs or health care or whatever. And I wanted to ask is, do you feel at the end of the day that the failure to go forward to this point on immigration is due to a lack of commitment or that other things took precedence? And if that's the case, can you live with that?

Rep. GUTIERREZ: I think that many at the White House just do not grasp the importance of this issue. Many have not made it the priority it should be because they don't see it as a priority. Do I understand the economy? Yes. And so we took initiative. Do I understand health care? Yes. And so we made that a priority. But I cannot see how it is that millions of people that he said he would bring out of the shadow into the light of day, a commitment that he made clearly and unequivocally during the campaign has not been crystallized in much more effective effort.

The president has problems and issues with many sectors of the Latino community across this country. Here's what we said, we're going to vote for the health care bill. But you know what? There's still a conversation that we're going to have with our community on Sunday. And I'm not quite sure yet what it is I'm going to suggest in terms of a future direction. But those things will be determine not exclusively on this vote.

MARTIN: Okay.

Rep. GUTIERREZ: There are still many, many things. And I'm going to tell you something I'm going to tell people, be ready to continue the fight. I really believe that in the end that legislative process is important. But without a process in the community that continues in our field activity, that continues to generate attention to the immorality of our immigration system, the division of families that are immigration, that the deportations are just wrong. And the crushing and dividing and destroying families and leaving formally an American citizen children out there wondering whether their parents are going to return home at the end of the day is just wrong.

MARTIN: Okay.

Rep. GUTIERREZ: And that we will not simply - I can tell you one thing I'm going to tell people, don't count on the legislative process in Washington, D.C. to be the end chore of our problems. We need to stay active. We need to stay on our feet and we're going to continue to have to keep this presidency engaged.

MARTIN: Okay.

Rep. GUTIERREZ: We're moving in the right direction. I think we can finish together.

MARTIN: All right. We have to you've been very generous with your time, congressman, we appreciate it. Luis Gutierrez represents the 4th congressional district in Illinois. He's a Democrat and he was kind enough to join us from his office on Capitol Hill. Congressman, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

Rep. GUTIERREZ: You're welcome.

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