Hardball: Whitehouse And Sanders On The Health Care Bill

From Hardball, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Sen. Bernie Sanders discuss the progress being made in the Senate on the health care bill. It sounds like t
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From Hardball, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Sen. Bernie Sanders discuss the progress being made in the Senate on the health care bill. It sounds like things are getting closer to a deal finally being struck. Sen. Sanders is right about what's going on. If the Democrats were serious about putting together some real reform, they'd be talking about single-payer. I love Bernie. God knows we need about fifty more of him instead of these guys on the take from the insurance industry right now.

MATTHEWS: Let`s start, however, with the important stuff, the gang of 10 Democrats trying to get health care reform done now. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is a Democrat from Rhode Island and Senator Bernie Sanders is an independent from Vermont.

Senator Whitehouse, your thoughts about this option, this new -- novel new plan to allow regular people to buy into the plan available to federal employees for health care? Your thoughts?

SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: I would describe it as a helpful idea that has been added to the mix. I think the acid test is whether the public option that emerges from it will create actual competition for the insurance companies who dominate so many of the states with enormous market share, and whether it will help put an end to the insurance company abuses, where you get thrown off your coverage when you have the temerity to get sick, or when if you have a preexisting condition, they won`t insure you at all, when your doctor tries to send a bill out there, refuse to pay it, all that nonsense. There`s got to be an alternative to that.

MATTHEWS: Senator Sanders, your thoughts about this new option on the table?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, it is one of the ideas that`s out there, as Sheldon indicates. The bottom line is, many of us made it clear, we need a strong public option so the American people have a choice about something other than a private insurance company whose function in life is to make as much money as possible.

And secondly, Chris, if we are serious about cost containment, which we must be at a moment when health care costs are projected to soar, we need real competition for the private insurance companies, and that`s what the public option concept is all about.

MATTHEWS: Are you intrigued by the idea that these plans available to federal employees include non-profit plans, Senator Sanders?

SANDERS: Well, I am intrigued. But once again, there is a lot in the mix right now. The bottom line is -- and I have made this very clear -- is whatever the end result will be in terms of a public option, it has got to be strong. It has got to cover substantial numbers of people. What the House did was weak. What the Senate did was even weaker. We need a strong public option, period.

MATTHEWS: OK. Let`s go to process, which is normally boring for people watching, but I think it`s gotten down to where it matters now. Senator Whitehouse and then Senator Sanders, let`s take a look at this group that`s meeting right now. It`s another one of these rump groups. It includes 10 senators, five liberals, if you will, Schumer, Rockefeller, Brown, Harkin and Feingold, and then you`ve got Lincoln, Landrieu, Nelson, Carper and Pryor.

What do you make of this? Is this the making of a deal for a group there -- Senator Whitehouse, your thoughts. Is this the right group to be putting this together, some from the left, some from the center?

WHITEHOUSE: I think it is. It`s a big enough group that there`s room for a lot of ideas to swirl around. It`s a small enough group that it`s manageable. And between Chuck Schumer and Mark Pryor, it has people who are known as deal makers, as accommodators, as people who try to find a useful path. So I`m optimistic at the group that is doing this.

MATTHEWS: Well, I`m one of the people that likes the word " deal maker." I don`t find that offensive one bit at this point. It`d be nice to have a deal maker. So I want you to respond to the same thought, Senator. You`re an independent in so many ways, in terms of who you are and what your politics are. Senator Sanders, can you let that group be helpful to you, that group of 10?

SANDERS: Absolutely. We will look forward to seeing what the result is. But Chris, let`s be very clear. The American people overwhelmingly want a public option. And when you break it down to Democrats, who essentially are going to be writing this bill, something like 70 percent or 80 percent of the people who vote Democratic want a strong public option. So I hope that these guys can work out something upon which we can get 60 votes.

MATTHEWS: But just to be an arguer, which I am, Senator -- I want to stay with you, Senator Sanders, then go back to Senator Whitehouse -- isn`t it important to get started? Isn`t it important to make a national commitment for national health care and not blow this one chance? You got something through the House. You got something through Labor, something through Finance Committee. You`re at this point, as we get to the holidays -- if the Congress boots this now and it gets shelved, isn`t that the worst possible option? Or is it worse if you don`t get the kind of public plan you want? What`s the worst option here?

SANDERS: Well, Chris, let me give you an unequivocal yes and no. And the answer is, to be very honest with you, Chris, if we were really serious about providing comprehensive universal health care to all of our people, the only way to go is a "Medicare for all" single-payer system...

MATTHEWS: Right.

SANDERS: ... which ends the hundreds of billions of dollars of waste generated by the private insurance companies. If your point is from a political perspective, do the Democrats look bad if they don`t deliver something? The answer is clearly yes. On the other hand, we have a responsibility not just to provide a bail-out for $400 billion or $500 billion...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

SANDERS: ... to the private insurance companies, who will raise their rates without any cost containment.

MATTHEWS: Senator Whitehouse, your thoughts on how practical we can be here?

WHITEHOUSE: I think now is the time for practicality. And one point that I think is worth considering in this debate is even a very strong public option that does not kick in until 2014 allows more than three years for the insurance companies to attack it politically and gut it.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

WHITEHOUSE: The sooner we can get proof of concept built out there, the sooner we can see what public options can to accomplish, how well they serve people, how much administrative waste they save, I think we win a battle if we can establish a firm proof of concept.

MATTHEWS: Is the government, the Congress, the Democratic-led Congress right now, in better shape to fix this problem if you get a bill passed later on than if you don`t get a bill passed? Do you have a better shot at cost containment after you pass -- let me start with Senator Sanders on that, to be fair. Do have a better shot at cost containment if you pass this bill or a better shot at holding it up?

SANDERS: I think you probably can argue that you have a better shot if you begin with something. But I have to tell you that the cost containment provisions currently in the bill, if we do not have a very strong public option to compete with the private insurance companies, are pretty weak. And what we`re looking at with the bill is soaring health care costs, which is unacceptable.

MATTHEWS: Let me go with you, Senator Sanders, and then with -- it`s great to have you both on, gentlemen. Obviously, I respect both of you a lot. Let me ask you both, how do we get past this -- what seems to be a real conundrum here about abortion and abortion rights and whether it should be funded through -- or not even funded but be allowed in these insurance programs? If you get a Senate vote tomorrow, for example, on the bill being offered to basically ban any funding for these insurance programs if they include a provision for abortion -- if that goes through and passes but doesn`t reach the 60 votes, doesn`t that give the House conferees a really good argument to keep Stupak in the final bill? Your thoughts, Senator Sanders first, and then Senator Whitehouse.

SANDERS: Chris, I really don`t. I have to be honest. You know, women, and many of us, have been fighting against right-wing Republicans for years who want to take away a woman`s right to choose. It is unthinkable and it ain`t going to happen. It is not going to happen that a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president are going to take back rights that women have fought for for years. It simply is not going to happen, in my view.

MATTHEWS: But these programs that you already have in the federal government for federal employees and retirees, they do not provide coverage for abortion. How can you say take back rights if it would simply extend that?

SANDERS: No. The Stupak amendment would make it more difficult for millions and millions of women to get insurance to pay for an abortion.

MATTHEWS: OK. OK, let me go to Senator Whitehouse on that. How do you deal with this in conference if you`ve got, say, a slight majority in your side of the Hill for this Stupak but -- it will be the Nelson amendment in that form, and then you go up against the House, which passed it by a majority vote? How do you deal with it?

WHITEHOUSE: Well, I think, you know, at that point, it`s an all-or- nothing proposition on the bill, with the future of the Democratic Party relying on it. You do a whip count and you do the very best you can. And I think you roll back Stupak a lot.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

WHITEHOUSE: But the point that I just made goes back to your earlier question. If we don`t pass this health care bill, not only is it a disaster for future health care efforts, it`s a disaster for future efforts on energy, on the climate, on financial re-regulation, on jobs. You will have a divided and fractured Democratic Party. We have got to get this done...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

WHITEHOUSE: ... and hang together.

MATTHEWS: Well, my only -- my vote, which is absolutely worthless since I don`t have one, is that the party that believes most in government has to govern. Thank you very much, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

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