GUY RAZ, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
Senate Democrats may have scored a procedural victory last night, but the real battle is set to begin after Thanksgiving. Sixty senators agreed to start the debate over health care legislation, and now, Majority Leader Harry Reid hopes to get a bill to the president's desk by the end of the year. But getting all those 60 votes to support the bill in its current form is by no means guaranteed.
Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln says she won't back a bill so long as it includes money for a government-run public health care plan. Same goes for other conservative Democrats like Louisiana's Mary Landrieu and Nebraska's Ben Nelson. Liberal senators say just the opposite.
So what do to? Well, President Obama has recruited some help, and his name is Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader from South Dakota and one-time nominee to run the Department of Health and Human Services.
And Tom Daschle joins me on the line now. Welcome to the program.
Mr. TOM DASCHLE (Former Democratic Senator, South Dakota): Thank you. Good to be with you.
RAZ: Senator Daschle, the president has deputized you to help Vice President Biden to try and persuade reluctant Senate Democrats to pass a bill. How will you convince senators like Blanche Lincoln to vote for it?
Mr. DASCHLE: Well, first of all, Guy, I don't want to overblow my role. I'm just an informal resource, but I think to your question, the most important thing is to make sure that everyone understands the tremendous problems that will occur in this country if we do nothing. The status quo is probably the worst option of all, and so to convince them that we simply can't sustain the status quo is where the argument begins.
RAZ: Well, you were, of course, majority leader. You were in the same boat as Harry Reid is now at certain times. What can Democrats do, and what might you do as part of that to get somebody like Blanche Lincoln from Arkansas to sign on? What specifically could you offer her?
Mr. DASCHLE: Well, I've always likened being the majority leader in the Senate to loading frogs on a wheelbarrow because the trick is to get 60 frogs on the wheelbarrow, all at the same time, before they jump off, and that is a process that is extraordinarily complex and laborious.
For the most part, I think you've got to address what concerns do they have, how can we address those concerns without alienating those who might be concerned if we go too far? So it's finding that very, very careful balance.
RAZ: Well, let's talk about some of those concerns, specifically the public option. Many senators say they will not support a bill with a public option. Is it worth dropping that?
Mr. DASCHLE: Well, I feel very strongly about the importance of a public option, but obviously, you've got to thread that needle as well. And I think it's going to be very difficult. Senator Reid thought he might have been able to do that by saying, look, let's just make it voluntary.
Senator Snow has suggested you don't have a state option, but you trigger it if we don't meet certain expectations within five years. That may be a way to thread the needle in this case.
RAZ: Which may not be enough for some of the more liberal members of the Senate who say they will not vote for a bill unless it has a robust public option.
Mr. DASCHLE: Well, and the question you'd ask those people is: Is having nothing at all better than having no public option? And I would argue that having nothing at all is, again as I said, is the worst possible option we could choose.
RAZ: In the end, if you need to compromise so much to get the 60 votes, how do you make sure the result isn't simply a sort of a watered-down version of health care legislation that doesn't do all that much at achieving the goal of insuring millions of uninsured people?
Mr. DASCHLE: Well, I think the bottom line is even if this legislation passes, in my view, we're on about the 30-yard line. And that is we still have about 70 yards to go in order for us to complete the work on health reform in a way that accomplishes everything we need with insurance reform, payment reform and delivery reform that will begin with this process.
RAZ: But compromise is going to have to be necessary.
Mr. DASCHLE: No question.
RAZ: Now, Senator Daschle, it was announced this week that you will join the law firm DLA Piper as a senior policy adviser. Some government watchdog groups have pointed out that the firm, you know, represents clients in the medical industry: Rite Aid, pharmaceutical companies. What's your response to those who say that it's a conflict of interest for you to be involved in any way?
Mr. DASCHLE: Well, I don't change my views regardless of who it is I'm speaking to or working with. I have never made one call or made one office visit on behalf of a client, and I don't intend to because that's not my role. So I don't think there's any conflict at all.
RAZ: How confident are you that a health care bill will land on the president's desk for signature before the end of this year?
Mr. DASCHLE: Well, I would say that we really crossed an extraordinary threshold last night. This is now within our reach. This is certainly doable, and I think we're going to get it done.
RAZ: That's former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, who's now helping the White House push through health care legislation in the Senate.
Tom Daschle, thanks for joining us.
Mr. DASCHLE: My pleasure.