John Hockenberry : The health care reform price tag— that's in the public discourse even before the details of the plan. The Congressional Budget Office recently put the price tag at $2.6 trillion. Joining me right now is one of the people who has criticized the plan, but is also deep in negotiations for figuring out what Congress might actually produce as a healthcare reform package, it's Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa that we welcome back to the program. Good morning, Senator.
Senator Charles Grassley: John, I'm always glad to be on with you.
JH: Well it's great to have you here, and I hope you say that at the end of this segment. I've been thinking hard about the criticism over the weekend, and I've got a bunch of questions right at the top. First of all, where does the health care reform negotiations stand at this point? What are your sticking points? What are you arguing about? I want to remind people, you're the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.
CG: Can I also inform the public, as I know you know John, that there's really two forums in the Senate on health care, some with similar jurisdiction and each with separate jurisdiction. For instance, in the Finance Committee, we have to raise all the money for it, and we also have jurisdiction over Medicare and Medicaid and some other health care policies. The other one is Senator Kennedy's committee, which is now being run by Senator Dodd, the HELP Committee, the health education, labor and pensions. They're actually working on a bill now, but they're working on a bill that is put down by the Democrats that Republicans have a chance to amend. Whereas in the Senate Finance Committee, where Senator Baucus and I have a very good bipartisan relationship, we are still trying to put together policy. For instance, we had two meetings yesterday, and I know I met with six separate senators on my side of the aisle, and Senator Baucus even had a meeting at six last night with several members of his party and people from the White House. Your question is: where are we? I guess the answer is that we're in the process of negotiation.
JH: Sounds like you guys are going to have a long hot summer, too, and I'll ask you about that in a moment. But explain to me, do you have a target number for this plan that you're working on?
CG: Yes. A trillion. We set policy up until last week, or maybe two weeks ago, that the Congressional Budget Office, and remember they're the official budget scorers, in other words what something is going to cost. They're nonpartisan as you know. They said it was well over a trillion dollars, so we have to do, two words that we use, "dial back" some of the policy we have to fit into about a trillion dollars.
JH: Senator, that motivates this question, your colleague Lindsey Graham, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, over the weekend seemed to suggest on one of the interview shows that a $1.6 trillion price tag was somehow a deal breaker, that the whole thing was off the table, that we couldn't even talk about health care if it was going to be that expensive. I have to say, we've asked him to come on this program he hasn't come on, that strikes me as a little disingenuous, considering there are all kinds of things going on in Washington that cost way more than $1.6 trillion, and Americans want health care reform. What's that all about?
CG: It's difficult for me to speak for another Senator. Let me say that if he were talking about the Senate Finance Committee negotiations it would be wrong for him to say those things. But don't forget what got the bad publicity last week was the fact that the HELP committee, Senator Kennedy's committee, brought out a bill that wanted $1.6 trillion, and I think that's what Lindsey was talking about.
JH: But it is over 10 years. Some people suggest the war in Iraq is going to cost over $2 trillion, and we never even discussed that.
CG: Let me say where he's partly right, in regard to that bill, unlike the bill Senator Baucus and I are working on, and don't forget, we're working toward the same end, eventually these two bills are going to come together on the Senate floor. The $1.6 trillion- that probably deserves some criticism, not because it's not a legitimate part of the process. Our goal is to cover about 50 million people who don't have health insurance and make it affordable for them.
JH: There you go.
CG: And for $1.6 trillion they were only covering 16 million of the people, about one third. So it wasn't getting the job done at a high price tag. That's what really made that approach laughable.
JH: So, Senator, price tag aside, your priority is to get everyone covered more than it is exclusively to keep the bill down.
CG: Well, it's a little bit of both. But our goal-you've got to have good policy. Good policy is the best politics, you have to understand that. A lot of people in Washington think the best politics is the way to get the best policy, I don't believe that.
JH: Let me ask you about mandates. Do we mandate to get people to full coverage in the United States? Is that part of your argument?
CG: That's part of my argument. Now a lot of people in my party disagree with that, and there's even some in the Democrats who disagree with that. There's two kinds of mandates. One is for an employer to have it. I think that's less popular in both parties than having what we call an individual mandate. Now, if an individual mandate sounds a little bit too anti-freedom, don't forget if you drive a car in any state in the United States, you've got to have car insurance.
JH: Right, and the federal government mandates all kinds of things. You have to pay your taxes, that's a mandate as well. The New York Times/CBS news poll on this subject, the latest one over the weekend says that Americans overwhelmingly support substantial, some would say radical changes to the healthcare system. That's even when you factor in some of these costs. You sound like you're in a pretty accommodating, roll your sleeves up, working mood on this issue, but I'm wondering, do you see some of your colleagues on either side of the aisle standing in the way of this on more ideological grounds?
CG: Well, there's, out of 40 Republicans I've never had one of them tell me we didn't need to do something about it. There's a question of how you go about it. Some people in my party, let's put it this way, start with the positive. Everybody in my party believes we have to do something about the 50 million people who don't have health insurance. It ought to be affordable. We ought to have reform of insurance so that there's not discrimination based upon pre-existing conditions, which even if you could get insurance you couldn't afford it. We want accessibility, we want affordability, we want emphasis on those five or six maladies like obesity and like diabetes that cost 80 percent of the cost of medicine. We want concentration on that, handle those better.
JH: Do you believe a government program that handles those kinds of things is going to put private companies out of business as some in the GOP have suggested?
CG: Lewin, the think tank here in town that studies healthcare, says you're going to get a crowd out of 120 million people. If the power to tax is the power to destroy, government is not a fair competitor in anything they get involved in. You're seeing that right now in the automobiles because Ford didn't take a bailout, and General Motors gets a bailout. So Ford's going to be in trouble because the taxpayers are helping General Motors.
JH: I think I'd rather be working for Ford than General Motors this morning, Senator Grassley. If the insurance industry says the plan that comes out of your committee is no good, do you stand up to them or do you go back to the drawing board?
CG: I think we're standing up to them already from the standpoint of-can you imagine the money they're making by discriminating against people because of pre-existing conditions? If we do away with that and if we have community rating, don't you think we're standing up to them?
JH: Well, I'm sitting in a wheel chair. I'm Mr. Pre-existing Condition, Senator, so I'm glad to hear you say that. Finally before we go, we've been talking about the long, hot summer for President Obama, how do you think the Sotomayor confirmation hearings are going to go? Do you, first of all, plan to vote for the nominee for the Supreme Court?
CG: You'll have to ask me that the week of July 13, because that's when we're having the hearing. If I had my mind made up, I would be unfair to the people of this country who expect an unbiased opinion. And I'd be unfair to her if I said I was going to vote against her. I'm going to wait until after that. But she's going to be approved I think.
JH: You're salt of the earth, I like to think. The President has admitted that he's struggling with cigarette addiction. Any reaction to that? Does it make him more like a man of the people?
CG: I've got a grandson that's a heck of a lot younger than he is, and seems to be addicted for only two years. And I'm on him to stop, and I think he'd really like to stop. But it's a tough one. So I'm not going to blame the president when I see the struggle that my grandson has, but I do hope that they both overcome it.
JH: We're going to let you go here in a second, but quick yes or no: Do you think it's going to be a long, hot summer for you and the President there in Washington?
CG: It's been a long, hot six months, because Max Baucus and I spend more than half our time working on healthcare already.
JH: Senator Charles Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee. Thanks for joining us on The Takeaway.