Senate Begins Work On Health Care Overhaul
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. This is a time when Congress is arguing over how to reform health care and how to pay for it. Lawmakers are doing this, knowing that a few lines one way or the other in legislation could save a life or save a billion dollars or end a political career.
Two Senate committees are wrestling with difficult questions, and they look to three former Senate leaders for suggestions on a possible compromise. NPR's Mara Liasson reports.
MARA LIASSON: A bipartisan plan, one that expands coverage, lowers costs, improves quality and pays for itself is the Holy Grail of the health reform debate. Three former Senate majority leaders - Republicans Bob Dole and Howard Baker and Democrat Tom Daschle - tried to show the current leadership of Congress how it might be done.
Howard Baker compared health care to the civil rights acts of the 1960s or environmental legislation in the '70s, where Congress managed to bridge deep divisions.
Mr. HOWARD BAKER (Former Senate Majority Leader): We came together to lay aside our personal preferences to forge a consensus view. It was not without controversy, but in those cases it was successful. And I feel that health care reform and universal coverage is indeed something whose time has come.
LIASSON: Baker was the majority leader in the early '80s, when that kind of bipartisanship was still possible. Bob Dole, on the other hand, led the effort to kill the Clintons' health reform plan in the 1990s. So it was surprising to hear him yesterday echoing Barack Obama's message of urgency.
Mr. BOB DOLE (Former Senate Majority Leader): If we don't do it this year, next year is an election year, and then the next year is the year before the presidential election, and then the next year is the presidential election. You know, let's do it now. You know, we've...
LIASSON: A lot of the details in the Dole-Baker-Daschle plan track what the Senate Finance Committee is currently considering. On making a health care plan deficit neutral, the three leaders show how much each side may have to swallow.
Employers would have to offer insurance to their workers or pay a fee, something many Republicans hate. And Democrats would have to accept a tax on the most generous employer-provided health plans. Yes, that would be raising taxes on the middle class, but, says Tom Daschle, it maybe the only way to pay for expanding coverage.
Mr. TOM DASCHLE (Former Senate Majority Leader): There is no such thing as a painless way to do this. What we have done with regard to the exclusion is to say we think that your health benefits ought to continue to be subsidized, but there's a limit beyond which we don't think subsidization makes a lot of sense. If you get a benefit that exceeds that given to members of Congress, is it really the responsibility of the tax payers to subsidize it? What we have agreed to is that, no, it doesn't make sense beyond that measure.
LIASSON: Dole had some tough words for his fellow Republicans. We can't just be the party that said no to health care.
Mr. DOLE: We're in the deep minority. We're not just minority. And if we want to regain some seats the next cycle, we need to be seen as a party that's doing something and making things happen.
LIASSON: On the big political question for Democrats - do you ram a bill through the Senate with 51 votes or make the compromises necessary to get Republicans onboard - Dole had a warning for the president's party. It's risky to pass a bill like this, he said, without political cover from the other side.
Mr. DOLE: If I learned anything in the time I was here, is it was bipartisanship on very important pieces of legislation. The American people have more confidence in the product if both parties have participated and voted for the final package.
LIASSON: Tom Daschle agreed and added this piece of advice from his years of rounding up Democratic votes in the Senate.
Mr. DASCHLE: Passing something with just Democratic votes assumes unanimity among Democrats. And I can tell you from personal experience that almost is an impossibility. So I wouldn't count on that, either.
LIASSON: There wasn't an immediate reaction from the Senate to the Dole-Baker-Daschle proposal, but there was from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A White House statement called the former leaders' plan serious, detailed and significant.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
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