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Committees in Congress are hard at work refining their health care proposals, but in the absence of details what has dominated the Capitol Hill debate on health care so far is rhetoric. NPR's David Welna sizes up this war of words.

DAVID WELNA: Everyone in the health care debate agrees that the biggest dispute focuses on just two words: public option. That's the term Democrats have chosen for a yet-to-be-devised publicly funded insurance program they'd like to compete with private insurance plans. Here's President Obama yesterday at the AMA convention.

President BARACK OBAMA: The public option is not your enemy, it is your friend, I believe.

WELNA: And here's Majority Leader Harry Reid on the Senate floor.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Majority Leader): It's right there in the name - it's a public option, public option.

WELNA: And speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): There is strong support for a public option right from the start.

WELNA: Republicans, however, refuse to use the word public when they talk about what Democrats are proposing. Senator John Cornyn of Texas says jokingly that Republicans who slip up face consequences.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): You get a fine that you have to put in the jar on the table if you say public plan instead of government plan.

WELNA: But for many Republicans it's more than just a government plan, it's a Washington takeover for Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker.

Senator ROGER WICKER (Republican, Mississippi): A Washington takeover of health care would result in a stifling of innovation.

WELNA: Same goes for Tennessee's Lamar Alexander, who's in charge of crafting the Senate GOP's message.

Senator LAMAR ALEXANDER (Republican, Tennessee): I think the one thing we don't want most is a Washington takeover.

WELNA: And neither do most Americans, according to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): What they don't want is a Washington takeover of health care along the lines of what we've already seen with banks, insurance companies and the auto industry.

WELNA: Two months ago, GOP lawmakers got a 28-page memo from pollster and political strategist Frank Luntz titled "The Language of Healthcare 2009." It lays out what Luntz calls, quote, "10 rules for stopping the Washington takeover of health care."

Dick Durbin, the Senate's number two Democrat, says it's clear where Republicans got their talking points.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): And as we listen to the speeches of Senator McConnell day in and day out, they're right out of the playbook, almost verbatim — in fact, many cases they are verbatim from the Luntz memo.

WELNA: Senate GOP message chief Alexander didn't hesitate to confirm that his party did get the memo.

Senator ALEXANDER: Well, Frank met with our Republican senators one time, and he's a useful wordsmith.

WELNA: Luntz, who could not be reached for comment, stressed in his memo that senators should tell stories about specific people when they highlight the perils of other countries' government-run health systems.

Last week, minority leader McConnell spoke of Canadian Fran Tooley from Kingston, Ontario.

Senator MCCONNELL: Two years ago, Fran herniated three discs in her back and was told that it would take at least a year before she could consult a neurosurgeon about her injury.

WELNA: Such assertions have put Democrats such as Senator Patty Murray of Washington State on the defensive. She said it's clear why Republicans spend so much time talking about Canada's health system.

Senator PATTY MURRAY (Democrat, Washington): It's simply because they want to protect the status quo. They want to protect the status quo in our health care system today, so they're out here talking about Canada.

Dr. GEORGE LAKOFF (University of California, Berkeley): What the Democrats need to do is be proactive and say what their plan is.

WELNA: That's Berkeley linguistics Professor George Lakoff. He says so far in the health care debate, Democrats have largely been responding to Republicans.

Dr. LAKOFF: They need to put the Republicans on the defensive, and they need to put the HMOs on the defensive. And they haven't done that.

WELNA: But Democrats maintain it's their job to say what they're for, which is also why some have felt at a disadvantage. Number two Senate Democrat Durbin says it's been tough not having a detailed proposal for overhauling health care.

Senator DURBIN: Of course, when we have a plan it's a lot easier to stand up and defend it.

WELNA: And with the plans promised this week, the health care debate may soon move beyond mere rhetoric.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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