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THE SITUATION ROOM

Health Care Summit

Aired February 25, 2010 - 17:20   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: All right, they started just after 10:00 a.m. This morning. It's now almost 5:30 and they took an hour break for lunch. But the president, the vice president and the Democratic and Republican leadership, they had hours and hours of serious discussion.

There you see the president saying good-bye to John Boehner, the Republican leader.

You know what?

I'd -- I'd like to just listen in and see if the microphones can pick up some of this conversation.

(VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, clearly, there's a lot of extraneous noise. We can't really pick it up. But you see the president there having a little conversation there with some of the Republican leaders, some of the Democratic leaders who are there.

The president wrapped it up with a rather strong statement. We're going to have extensive analysis, coverage, here in THE SITUATION ROOM over the next several hours as we try to digest what has happened on this important day.

This is a rather historic moment here in this debate that's been going on now for some 13 months, since the president took office, on health care reform. It's clearly a decisive moment. The president has basically given everyone, the Democrats and the Republicans, a month or six weeks to see if there can be some common ground. If not, then it's clear he's going to try to go ahead with a Democratic version alone. And if that fails, if that goes forward, it will be up to the electorate in November to decide who was right and who was wrong.

We have all of our analysts who are here, the best political team on television -- all of our reporters. Dan Lothian is over at the White House, Dana Bash is up on Capitol Hill.

Let me go to Dan Lothian first.

The president is going to walk back from Blair House, across Pennsylvania Avenue, back to the White House.

He did make some concessions to these Republicans today, especially on medical malpractice. He was open on interstate purchase of health insurance. He tried to go a little bit, but he does make it clear, Dan, that when it comes to the most contentious issue, how to get 30 million more Americans on some sort of insurance, they are very, very far apart.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They are very far apart. And the president making it very clear that it's possible that they will not be able to, you know, close that gap. And I think what the takeaway was for me, Wolf, is that the -- the general tone going into this summit really had -- has not changed.

Going in, the president said that he had this plan, that he believes this is the way to -- the best way, going forward, to get health care reform.

Republicans were saying that they needed to start all over again. That is what we heard inside that summit. Republicans saying that the only way to move forward is to start over, that there should be incremental steps, not a complete overhaul.

The president, though, saying that baby steps won't get you anywhere -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes -- Dana Bash, that was a significant statement from the president because the Republicans have been saying let's take this step by step, incrementally, let's pass legislation where we can reach agreement and leave some of more contentious issues down the road.

But as -- as Dan just said, the president was very specific. Baby steps, he says, don't take you where you need to go.

So it's basically from the Democrats' and the president's perspective, all or nothing right now.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is. And, look, there are philosophical differences on each specific issue within this -- this large attempt at health care reform. And then, as you said, there are -- there is a fundamental philosophical difference about approach. And that was clear throughout the hours and hours of the day going by. And that is that the Democrats philosophically believe that the best way to tackle this is to -- because it is so intertwined -- to do many of these complicated issues together. And Republicans say now way, that is absolutely the wrong way to go.

And what -- one thing, though, I want to mention is Dan and you talked about one of the last things the president talked about, reaching out to Republicans on medical malpractice reform.

Well, as he was talking, I e-mailed with three senior Democratic officials, both in the House and the Senate, saying is this real, do you really think you can do that?

And the general answer I got back was probably not.

So there just gives you a sense of the rhetoric or at least the olive branch, is probably a better way to say it, in that summit versus the reality of probably what is going to happen up here. Certainly not in terms of the short-term, but even long-term, that there really are, again, philosophical differences, even on something that they generally think, in terms of the issue, medical malpractice, should be addressed.

BLITZER: The president is spending some time in that room at Blair House, saying good-bye to everyone. He's going to cross the street, go back to the White House. All of our analysts are here, the best political team on television.

We're standing by to speak with some others, Republicans, Democrats, among others.

We'll take a quick break.

Our coverage here in THE SITUATION ROOM will resume right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're continuing our coverage of this health care summit.

The president walked out of Blair House just a moment ago.

As he was walking by reporters, he stopped and said this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE)?

OBAMA: Hi.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE)?

OBAMA: Well, I thought it was a terrific conversation and we'll see whether it made a difference in terms of people's -- people's attitudes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, you heard what the president had to say, a terrific conversation. But he's basically told the Republicans the Democrats are moving forward with or without your cooperation. You have a month, maybe six weeks, to make up your mind, to see if there is some room for an agreement or non -- a non-agreement.

Donna Brazile and Mary Matalin are assessing what's going on -- Mary Matalin, what was accomplished today?

MARY MATALIN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think a lot was accomplished for the Republican Party that they were clear and concise and highlighted really brilliant policymakers and their policy. We know what those areas of agreement are. They are ready to put them on the table and ready to have them passed by next week. So the upshot of the day was the Democrats not wanting to pass immediate reforms that would have in the immediate impact lowering costs and expanding coverage. It is the Democrats that are obstructionists. The president ended his best point was his last point. Let's bring it on and have an election. If they want to jam it through, which is where -- what you just said, Wolf, he -- concluded -- might be the case, then go ahead and let's have an election about that. It's a great debate, one that the whole country has joined in.

BLITZER: Donna Brazile, there were low expectations about some sort of agreement emerging from the session on this day. Was that realistic, those low expectations?

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I thought the whole purpose was to listen. And what we heard today is that many of the ideas that the Republicans have put forward, they are included in the bill. And that's a good thing. 147 Republican amendments were included in the Senate bill which is the base of what the president has put forward. Over 100 bipartisan sessions held in the United States Senate, 79 in the United States House of Representatives. There's no reason for us to throw all of that way just so we can have more talking points and more shouting matches. The president is absolutely right. After a little bit of soul-searching, it is important we come up with what we agree on and move forward. Let me say this to all of those that are afraid of reconciliation. We use reconciliation on welfare reform for the trillion dollar tax cuts and we use it for the prescription drug benefit program. All of those programs were never paid for. This is one reconciliation the Democrats decide to use it because it is in the toolbox. Where the proposal that they are putting forward will be paid for. I think it is -- Democrats should not fear the future. They should not fear the November elections. They should lead and govern and Republicans want to don't obstruct, let it be.

BLITZER: If it was okay for President Bush to get those tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, approved through this reconciliation process or simple a 51 majority -- 51-member majority in the USA Senate, why isn't it okay for the Democrats to use reconciliation on health care reform?

MATALIN: As we all know, without boring our audience, reconciliation process was not made for what they are trying to use it here. No one is afraid of it. Go ahead and do it. The president's notion that the people don't understand what this is belied by the polls. They understand what it is. The majority vote is tyranny of the minority. This is a proposal that has been out there for a year or that the whole big picture has been out there for a year and the more it is out, the less they like it. Donna, let's have a race. Girlfriend, we can go toe to toe on this. There are at least six areas of immediate agreement the Republicans put on the table, Democrats won't pass because the fundamental disagreement between two parties and thank god there are two parties, is the liberals think that health care is a right and the conservatives and Republicans think it is a responsibility. Democrats' approach is have mandated government entitlement and the -- Republican approach is let's let the -- have market transparency and accountability and it will drive down prices and it will keep up the care. Let's have that discussion. If you want to have it on a faulty policy process, go. Let's go.

BRAZILE: Mary is absolutely right. There this is about a fundamental vision of government. And what we should do as a country to help all citizens. Not just those who are able to maintain their jobs and their employ based health care. According to the latest data, 62 percent of all people filed bankruptcies. They did so because they couldn't afford their medical bills. We also know that from the evidence that we have seen over the past few years that 14,000 Americans are losing their health insurance. Last year, the health insurance had record profits. $12 billion. Yet, about 3 million Americans lost their health care. So it is a moral responsibility as a country to try to take care of each other and it is especially when you are in an economic downturn.

BLITZER: Hold on, guys. I want to explain what we are talking about. It is confusing. In the Senate, there is a filibuster. You need 60 votes to beat a filibuster. Right now the Democrats have 57 and two independents who vote with the Democrats. 59. Not enough. There is this other option called reconciliation where you only need 51 votes, simple majority to get legislation passed. Here is how the president spoke about that earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRES. BARACK OBAMA (D), UNITED STATES: This is your reconciliations brought up. Again, I think the American people aren't always -- all that interested in procedures inside the Senate. I do think that they want a vote on how we are going to move this forward. And, you know, I think most Americans think that a majority vote makes sense.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. He clearly is leaving open the option of reconciliation. And up and down majority vote. Mary Matalin, the -- Republicans said that many times. They simply -- when in the white house and they were in the majority they just want to up or down vote. The president basically throwing that right back at them right now.

MATALIN: And in the -- process of jamming it all together like this, one big giant monstrosity of when Biden was in the Senate he called it a naked -- now it is just a majority vote. Okay. Let's have an up and down vote on tort reform, pre-existing conditions, interstate competition. The president himself said at the end of the day, although he mischaracterized in every single case, the Republicans' position was let's have an up or down vote on those things and get that done. And then take it from there. We do not need to overhaul the entire system. That's not going to happen. If he proceeds like this, then they will get nothing done and have an election in the fall and they will lose both chambers and I -- I don't usually go on a limb like that politically. If he pushes it through that's what will happen. Apparently he doesn't care about those two chambers. He cares about making history on something the country doesn't want or need.

BLITZER: Go ahead and respond.

BRAZILE: I totally do agree. If Mary wants to defend the 39 percent insurance hike here in California, the double-digit hikes across the country, let the Republicans continue to defend the discrimination process of insurance companies. Attorney General Brown in California today will subpoena all the insurance company records and will give 30 days to essentially explain why they are hiking premiums at such a time as this. I think that what the president did today was historic in nature. Once again, allow law makers from both sides, by my calculation gave the Republicans even extra time to put forward their ideas and come up with their proposals and say here are areas of common agreement. At this point I think that the most important thing is that the Democrats simply need to act. We don't need another round of debates. We don't need another round of political pundits telling us we will lose five seats, lose the Senate, lose the house. When so many of our fellows are losing their health insurance and right now worried about whether they can go to the doctor. That's what is Obama would say, that's the urgency of now.

BLITZER: Thanks very much. Don't go too far away. We are going to continue our coverage. We are standing by. We will speak live with David Axelrod, the president's senior adviser and Congressman Eric Cantor. He's the number two Republican in the House of Representatives. We will get their reaction. The best political team on television is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. I want to get their thoughts. Much more of our coverage right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Historic day in Washington. The president convened a summit over at Blair house across the street from the white house on health care reform. It went on for several hours. Six hours -- 6 1/2 hours, I should say. An hour for lunch. David Axelrod is the president's senior adviser and is joining us from the north lawn. Was it just political theater, David Axelrod? Was something substantive achieved?

DAVID AXELROD, SENIOR ADVISER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think any time Republicans and Democrats sit down in Washington and have a substantive discussion on a serious issue, that's -- that's progress rather than just shooting lines across on cable television, trying to score political points. There was a little of that in this meeting. I thought there was substantive exchanges. One thing that came across loud and clear is we have a big problem in health care in this country. With health insurance that's getting worse and not better. And that we need to do something about it.

BLITZER: The president said that they are very far apart on the issue of insuring the additional 30 million Americans, Democrats have a plan which is expensive and Republicans, he says, their plan would insure another 3 million Americans. On this issue, a gut issue, they are very far apart and although there are other issues, where they are closer. The president rejecting those step by step incremental progress. Why is he doing that? Why not reach agreement on what is -- reachable and then move on to the more difficult issues later?

AXELROD: Here is the problem, Wolf. Let me give you an example. Both Republicans and Democrats said we shouldn't discriminate people with pre-existing medical conditions. They should be eligible for insurance. Now excluded by most insurance companies. And any expert will tell you that you can't do that unless you have it in the pool, the health care system. We all believe in the private health care system. That's the way the private health care system works. So a lot of these pieces don't work on unless you do a comprehensively. And so it is nice to say you are for -- for example, helping people with pre-existing conditions. You really can't do it unless you take on the larger problem.

BLITZER: Candy Crowley has a question for you, David.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, David. What's -- what's the game plan here? The president said well, if in four, six weeks the -- Republicans are going do this soul-searching and to see what they could agree to. Is it now the Republicans who come forward? Are you -- is he going to sit back now and wait for that four to six weeks to pass?

AXELROD: No. I think what he will do is Congress template the exchange that's had today. A number of issues on which ideas were raised and the president expressed interest in that might improve on the proposal that he made. But --

CROWLEY: Could I ask you what?

AXELROD: Well, you know here, had an exchange on medical malpractice with Senator Coburn. That was one area. He talked cash there was more talk about how to approach this issue of creating competition over state lines between insurance companies that was another issue. There were a number of areas in which there's -- there's some room. I mean, but the one area that I think Wolf mentions coverage and I responded to that. One area that they seem very timid about is whether or not we are going to have minimum standards as it relates to insurance companies. Whether people can have the ability to appeal when insurance companies deny them care, for example. And, you know, we are -- we believe that we need to give people consumer protection so that they can count on the insurance that they get, when they need it. And that's something that seems troubling to our friends on the Republican side.

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: David, John King here. The president said baby steps don't get you where you are going. He believes you need to stay with the big sweeping bill. If the Republicans don't come forward and if there's no epiphany in the next month or whatever, he made clear Reid and Pelosi should go ahead with any means they have at their disposal. Will you count the votes first? There is a report in the Wall Street Journal this morning, Ed Henry confirming, you are working on a plan "b." More modest bill that would cover 15 million more Americans and more modest proposals than the other areas if you can't get the big bill. How does this work going forward?

AXELROD: Look, John, for the reasons I said at the outset, we believe that we -- we need to move forward in a comprehensive way. In order to achieve all of the goals -- many of which are goals that Republicans say they share. There are people all over America who with insurance and without insurance, particularly small business people, and people who don't get insurance through their work, who need us to help. The bill we proposed, for example, the plan we proposed includes some $400 billion over the next ten years in tax credits for small businesses and people that don't get insurance through their employers to help them afford health care. They can't wait for us to debate this endlessly and we want to move forward. KING: If you can't get a big bill that covers roughly 30 billion people if this went down or the majority leader told you we don't have the votes, would you come back with another proposal would cover 15 million or would you say enough this year, we need to focus on the economy?

AXELROD: John, we are going to focus on the economy regardless. This is an economic issue. Particularly for many small businesses. We are going to focus on job creation and regardless of what happens with this. I'm not going to hypothesize about what might happen if a set of circumstances occurs. We know we have a big problem. I think it was described in great detail today. We -- we have a very strong answer to that problem. We think it would help greatly and want to move forward with it.

BLITZER: David Gergen has a question.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Just because there is ambiguity here, let's press on this a bit more. It sounded the president ended the meeting by saying that the only way forward with the Republicans is that if they want to come forward with amendments to the comprehensive bill, we will talk. He took off the table any idea of starting over and then looking for three, four Democratic ideas, three, four Republican ideas, and putting up to a small bill. And yet, you left the door open tonight also to the possibility the president himself as John king said possibly having plan "b" if plan "a" doesn't work. You are demanding the Republicans come forward with amendments to the comprehensive bill but no starting over and we leave open the door to plan "b."

AXELROD: Starting over in my mind is a code for delay and obstruction. We have had a lengthy debate. One thing should be clear today is both Republicans and Democrats have given this an awful lot of thought. All the ideas are out there. There's not going to be an epiphany sometime in the next, you know, month or two or three. And you know, where we don't want to do is get into stalling game with a mind towards stopping any action because someone believes that they can score political points by keeping us from moving forward on a serious problem. But to the extent people want to cooperate and share ideas, we have embraced many, including -- you know, idea of a pool for small businesses and people who don't have insurance to buy insurance at a competitive price where they have choice and competition. That's something we both agree on and want on move forward on. Let's focus on the fact there is many areas of agreement and let's get something done.

BLITZER: David Axelrod, senior adviser of the president, David, thanks very much for that. I think we do -- we are a little smarter right now than we wrestling when we woke up this morning on where this stands. Appreciate it very much. All right. We have a lot more to cover. We will get Republican reaction. The number two Congressman -- Republican Congressman in the House of Representatives. He standing by live. We will pick his brain here in THE SITUATION ROOM right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: We are continuing to digest what we saw today at the white house health care summit. We are going to be speaking with the number two Republican in the house, Eric Cantor who is standing by live. We will go to him shortly, but let's continue the assessment with the best political team on television. Gloria Borger, as I said before, low expectations for a deal going on, in and now that it is wrapped up, where do we go?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Low expectations for a deal leaving. The president said, baby steps don't take you where you need the go. He characterized lots of what the Republicans wanted to do as either baby steps or undo-able unless you had a larger mandate requiring people to buy health care insurance, Wolf. So while I think that the president made the gesture of saying search your souls, Republicans, and come back to me in a month or six weeks, this green lighted the Democrats for coming up to a measure they would try to pass with a majority in each house. Now, we don't know the answer to the question of whether they will be able to do that and get a majority of the Democrats, but you heard the house speaker, and you heard a lot of Democratic Congressional Barrons saying that there is nothing wrong the political majority and passing something for them is a political necessity right now.

BLITZER: And Joe Johns, the session that started at 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m., the Democrats had a total speaking of time of 1:16 and Republicans 55 minutes. There is president Obama who had 57 minutes and the members of the Democrats 59 minutes and the Republicans total had 55 minutes. We are doing the math in afternoon session which wrapped up at 5:00 p.m. We are doing those numbers shortly, but the Republicans will clearly complain it is slanted against them.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, it is the president's moment to been on stage and what the Democrat leaders of the House of Representatives wanted to see, as well as a lot of the Senate, too. They wanted the president out there talking about this, and that is what he did. It is also interesting, because if you read into what the president said, it delivered what looked like the beginning of the end game, his best alternative to a negotiated solution here. If we don't do something about 30 million Americans who are uninsured, and we don't do more about pre-existing conditions, well, then, we will have to take it to the voters, and presume that the intermediate step is the 51-vote solution. So that is at least the outlines of the end game, and the most important thing that the president said in all of those minutes was probably at the end before they walked out.

BLITZER: And the Republicans had less speaking time, but they took full advantage of the minutes they had.

GERGEN: Yes, they do. Wolf, before you get to that, the president deserves enormous credit for putting this on. He was I thought extremely graceful and occasionally with an edge, but he was graceful and dominated much of the proceedings, and the Democrats got stronger in afternoon than in the morning. Even so, I don't think they got the breakthrough they were looking for in terms of the public, reaching the public and trying to change opinions. That is because intellectually, the Republicans had the best day they have had in years. The best day they have had in years. They, you know, there has been a perception that the Republicans are brain dead and ideologically resistant to anything, and they have no ideas and the rest of it. I thought it was not just the, you know, people like Lamar Alexander and Tom Coburn, but the new people, of Ryan and Cantor were fresh, and I think that they really evened the score and kept it even.

BLITZER: And stand by, because Jessica Yellin has more on what is going on. Jessica, the gridlock over health care right now. And you have been looking into that.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That is right, Wolf. Washington deadlocked in partisan divide and the big question we are looking at all week is how do you break through it? As you have been discussing President Obama attempted new way to do it today and we saw a civil discussion and leaders face-to-face talking about substance and unusual and actually not the way our system is structured. So, it was President Obama coming up with one new attempt at breaking gridlock and we thought we'd ask regular folks if they have other creative solutions to breaking the partisan divide in Washington, and here are the suggestions we got from our viewers.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: At a CNN focus group last month I met Stephen White a law student who thinks that the president should use his veto pen to force the two parties to work together.

STEPHEN WHITE, LAW STUDENT: Tell Congress that if it does not have bipartisanship in any of the bills, that is, does not have co-sponsors from both parties, that is, it does not bring both parties to the table to have discussions on ideas and solutions and actually incorporate those ideas and into the substantive content into the bill, then he is not going the sign that bill.

YELLIN: Congress would howl, but it is a creative solution. Our I- reporters suggested other ways to break the gridlock. Three of the most creative solutions. Jeff Esposito suggests, changing chairs.

JEFF ESPOSITO, CNN IREPORTER: Let's go back to the grade school mentality when people aren't getting along and clicks start forming, interject people where they shouldn't be so juggle in people, put people who don't like each other sitting next to each other, and that way we can get it going.

YELLIN: Dave Kronmiller wants a truth amendment.

DAVE KRONMILLER: I propose a truth amendment to the constitution of the United States, and force the politicians to do what any other citizen would have to do in a dispute, swear to tell the truth. Hold our politicians to the same standard.

YELLIN: And Jimmy Deol says that we should be more like his country, Canada, and spread the power around.

JIMMY DEOL: Dilute the political base and introduce a third or perhaps fourth party and one from the center and one with another agenda, and that would force all of the parties to compromise and come to a swift conclusion to help the people.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: Wolf, I am sure plenty of the viewers will have reasons they don't want us to be more like Canada, but the point is that the government is not static, and it can change, and we can urge the elected officials to update the system if we feel it is broken. Personally, I like the truth amendment. If folks want to comment to the suggestions or add some of their own go to CNN.com/i-report. Wolf.

BLITZER: Jessica, what did you feel when this unfolded today? Did you feel that the Democrats or the Republicans for that matter, who do you think perhaps scored the most points?

YELLIN: I actually thought it was a win for, it sounds cheesy, but for the country. This is when you go out to talk to the folks, they want to see our leaders with a substantive ideas, and it benefits the Republicans probably more, because David has pointed out, they have been cast as the party of no ideas and everybody looked like a grown- up, and it is a change for Washington and makes the voters happy for a change. More of this to come.

BLITZER: It was a good substantive discussion and for all of us interested in the various issues we all learned something, Jessica.

YELLIN: More than I ever wanted to know about health care, but we have to learn it, because it is relative these days and it is impressive that the politicians knew what they were talking about.

BLITZER: There were some smart people in the room and some of them were trying to score points, but others were clearly involved in some of the most important issues affecting the health care debate. A lot more to digest. Jessica, thanks very much.

And to our viewers, you are in THE SITUATION ROOM.