Week In Politics: Health Care Legislation NPR's Robert Siegel talks with regular political observers, columnists David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Georgetown University about the wrangling over health care on Capitol Hill.
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Week In Politics: Health Care Legislation

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Week In Politics: Health Care Legislation

Week In Politics: Health Care Legislation

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And joining us now to talk politics are our two regular commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Georgetown University, and David Brooks of The New York Times. Hello to both of you.

DIONNE: Hello.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: E.J., we now have an interesting question which is, is it easier to get agreement among 193 countries than among 60 Democrats in the U.S. Senate?

DIONNE: You know, it's funny when President Obama gave his Copenhagen speech today, he said, I think our ability to take collective action is in doubt right now and I thought he was talking about the United States Senate. This is a remarkable process we've gone through. And I think it's actually a process that has not made the Democrats look particularly good just because it looks so messy. And I...

SIEGEL: This health care and the U.S. Senate.

DIONNE: Yes, exactly. And it now all hangs, or seems to hang, on one person: Ben Nelson of Nebraska. And what I was told by a senator, who knows him well, is that Nelson was once upon a time thinking about the costs of voting yes. And now he is very focused on the costs of voting no, that he has some problems. He still doesn't think the abortion restrictions in this are strong enough, even though Senator Casey has been trying to negotiate some with him...

SIEGEL: Senator Casey of Pennsylvania.

DIONNE: ...of Pennsylvania. But he doesn't, in his heart of hearts, want to stop the action on health care. That's what this Democrat thinks. We'll see very soon.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, you wrote a column today weighing the pros and cons of the Senate health care bill. The cons won by your reckoning. I assume that means if you had Senator Nelson here, you would say, no bill is better than this bill.

BROOKS: Yeah, the cons won at least this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: And I think the bill has some very fine features, covering people, having some cost control within the system. But our system is fundamentally messed up at the core. There's no transparency. People are sheltered from the consequences of their decisions. And as a result, health insurance - or health costs have risen to the percentage of GDP from 15 to 17, now up to 22, 24. This bill, according to the actuary for Medicare, would say those health cost will rise even faster. And to me, that's the fundamental problem which is not solved.

SIEGEL: But what would be the consequences of there not being any bill? Or would those consequences not be so grave?

BROOKS: Those consequences would be terrible because if Obama fails and if Clinton fails, then no one is going to want to do anything. But if we do the easy stuff, such as covering people without doing the hard stuff...

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

BROOKS: ...those consequences are also terrible.

SIEGEL: E.J.?

DIONNE: Right. And I think that's the problem with what we'll describe just for this moment as the David Brooks-Howard Dean position...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DIONNE: ...which is that it is...

SIEGEL: The bill is not good enough for me, is what you're saying.

DIONNE: Right. And that this is one of the rare opportunities to pass a comprehensive health care bill. And the mere possibility of getting insurance to 30 million people who don't have it and to get rid of the restrictions on people getting insurance because they have preexisting conditions, a whole lot of other things in this bill are very good. And on the cost side, there is quite a lot in here. I actually agree with David, there are more things that could be done and there were senators trying to add things to the bill at the last moment, to do more about cost. But I think the only way we will ever get to controlling these costs is to have everyone, or almost everyone at least, inside something like a unified system. And I think in the end, a lot of people, including progressives who are now critical, are going to say we can't walk away from this opportunity to pass something that people have been trying to pass for decades.

SIEGEL: David, you want to speak for yourself and Governor Dean now?

BROOKS: Yeah, we're going to California, Ohio - ahh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: You know, we spend too much on health care in this country and according to the Medicare actuary that spending is going to go up. If you care, as I do, say about preschool education, states are going to be so badly squeezed by this bill, you can kiss good-bye to those other programs which are much more important, which have much bigger social impact. And that's essentially why I have trouble.

SIEGEL: Now E.J., you began by taking about the central role of Senator Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska, but there is another key player whom you've written about, there has been a lot written about him and that's Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the independent, formerly Democratic senator. I want to quote back what you wrote in the blog: I think the evidence is overwhelming that Lieberman double-crossed the Democratic leadership and the rest of his colleagues. That's a strong, strong, strong word.

DIONNE: And Democrats felt burned by him on this in a way they had not felt burned on other things that they were mad about Joe Lieberman for, because they felt that they had finally found a solution to the thorniest problem here and then he blew it up. And so there is a kind of resentment. I heard this week from a lot of Democrats, again, including people who are not necessarily sort of longtime foes of Lieberman where I think he created a break now that's going to be very hard for him to heal with many of his colleagues.

SIEGEL: David, Senator Lieberman's role?

BROOKS: And the idea that you could win over the senators with the Medicare buy in, which is a solution further to left than the existing proposal, to me was the political nonstarter. So, I don't understand the anger directed to Lieberman as opposed to all the other 10 senators or so, who've always been opposed to these two things.

DIONNE: Just to answer that, there was a view that there were sort of provisions in the buy in that would have won them over. The leadership was very strongly of the view that they actually had everybody else and that Lieberman's public announcement really broke the deal.

SIEGEL: More to come, I'm sure in the future. David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, thanks a lot once again. Good to see you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Happy holidays.

DIONNE: You too.

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