Transcript: Mike Ross on Voices of Power

Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark), from the Blue Dog Coalition talks about his two weeks of intense negotiations with the House Leadership and White House to get a bill conservative Democrats could live with.Video: Gaby Bruna & Matt Hashiguchi
Interview by Lois Romano
Thursday, July 30, 2009; 5:45 AM

MS. ROMANO: Welcome, Representative Mike Ross, a Democrat from Arkansas. Welcome, Congressman Mike Ross, Democrat from Arkansas, member of the Blue Dog Coalition who has been very involved in the healthcare reform legislation.

Thank you for joining us today.

MR. ROSS: Thank you, Lois. It is good to be with you.

MS. ROMANO: You have been a pivotal player in negotiating the House legislation on healthcare reform, and this is a pretty big day. A few minutes ago, you just announced a deal with the House leadership in the White House. Tell us how you broke the logjam.

MR. ROSS: Well, you know, we have been involved--there are seven of us that are members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that also happen to be members of the Blue Dog Coalition, but it is important that I point the Blue Dog Coalition has not taken a formal position on the healthcare legislation just as they did not on the energy bill earlier this year, but I can tell you the seven of us have spent day and night in some very intense, at times, and very good-faith negotiates to try and give the American people the kind of healthcare reform that they need and want.

And you know, we've been in meetings all day and all night for about two weeks; the last two weeks, quite frankly, have been just a great big blur, but if it gets healthcare and health insurance affordable for everyone in America, then it will have been worth it, because I know there were some that thought we were trying to stop healthcare reform. Nothing could be further from the truth. We simply wanted to slow the process down and ensure that we were working toward the kind of healthcare reform that the American people need and want.

And so, that is what we have tried to accomplish here. And finally, just literally minutes ago, there was a breakthrough. We were able to reach an agreement that ensures that every member of Congress will have the entire month of August and the first week in September to read the bill and to visit with their constituents about it. So, there will not be a vote on the floor of the United States House Representatives until some time in September.

MS. ROMANO: And the deal was contingent on that, correct?

MR. ROSS: Absolutely.

MS. ROMANO: And why was that so important to you, to have this delay?

MR. ROSS: You know, we have been trying to get healthcare reform done since Harry Truman, and our objective is to get healthcare reform done this year; that was the President's original objective. And somewhere along the way, people started imposing this artificial deadline of get it done by August 1. We've done a lot this year. The American people are ready for us to slow down and to actually take the time to think about what we are voting on, to read what we are voting on, and by waiting until September, this gives every member of Congress, Democrat and Republican, the opportunity to go home and listen to their constituents, to make sure that we're getting this right.

This is the kind of issue that you do not rush. It is very complex, it is very complicated, and it affects literally all 300 million of us that live here in the United States of America. But we were able to reach an agreement that substantially cuts the cost of the bill, the cost of the healthcare reform bill in the House, over a 10-year period, will now come in under $1 trillion. So, we made substantial cuts to the cost of the bill.

The public option will truly be just that, an option. It will not be mandated on anyone; it will simply give consumers more choices, and it must compete with private insurance on a level playing field.

And then, finally, another significant breakthrough is, originally, if you are a small business and you had a payroll over $100,000, you were going to be mandated to provide health insurance to your employers. We were able to increase that to an annual payroll of $500,000, and the full penalty of 8 percent for not providing health insurance to your employees would not hit until you have $750,000 in annual payroll. So, the stair stepped up to 8 percent, but it doesn't begin on the first $500,000 of annual payroll.

That covers about 86 percent of small businesses of America. It still ensures that those small business owners and their employees have access to healthcare through what is known as "the Exchange," where they will be able to choose an option and, based on their income, they might very well qualify for a subsidy to help them pay for their health insurance, which is now going to be required that everybody in America have health insurance, much like, if we own a car, we are required to have automobile insurance.

So, these, we believe, are very significant improvements to the bill, but this is a small part of a very lengthy legislative process. There are five bills dealing with healthcare and there are parts of all of them I like and there are parts of all of them I dislike. And so, this is just a small part of a lengthy process, a complex process that, at the end of the day--and I believe if I counted correctly, we have ten more legislative steps or hurdles before we actually send the bill to the President for his signature. So, there is plenty of time to continue to improve on what we started with, and I think the American people have told us, slow down and get it right, and that's what we're doing.

MS. ROMANO: When Senator Baucus had his press conference a little bit ago, he said that--I think the CBO said that 95 percent of Americans would be covered under the plan they are proposing.

Do you have any figures on the House bill that you just worked on?

MR. ROSS: I think that will be close.

MS. ROMANO: If you could kind of jump forward six weeks here, do you think there is a bill that is going to get out of conference that will have a public option, because it seems like the Senate is really big on that right now.

MR. ROSS: You know, I don't know. I know the President wants a public option. The Senate is talking more in the area of some type of co-op, state-based co-op plan. We're not even 100 percent sure yet what that means, but, you know, the way I see it, this is about giving consumers choices. It is about competition for the marketplace; it is about giving consumers choices, and that's what we're trying to accomplish here, but we've got to ensure it is done on a level playing field. So, at the end of the day, as a result of all of this, we don't end up with a single-payer system, which I believe the American people don't want, and neither do I.

MS. ROMANO: Three months ago, I guess, you wrote to the leadership saying that you wanted to be part of the drafting process on this legislation. What happened?

MR. ROSS: you know, as Chair of the Blue Dogs Healthcare Taskforce, we've been meeting weekly on policy issues and with stakeholders most of this year, and we explained to the leadership that we wanted to be a part of helping write this healthcare reform bill, and quite frankly, we attended some meetings where we were listened to but we didn't see any of our ideas ending up in any of the draft language, and I think that was a mistake, and I think the people--

MS. ROMANO: And whose call do you think that was?

MR. ROSS: You know, I don't know. I don't know.

All I can tell you is I think our leadership now understands that was a mistake and, as a result of it, we had to go through this painful exercise that we've gone through for the last two weeks. I hope that they don't force us to do that again in the future.

MS. ROMANO: As this process, you know, got fairly intense in the last couple of weeks, Rahm Emanuel came over. How much do you think he contributed to moving this thing along or not?

MR. ROSS: He was a--look, there's no secret here that Henry Waxman is much more to the left than I am. Our ideology, our political philosophies are different. We respect one another, but we're different people with different ideas.

And so, throughout the entire negotiation process, I would like to say it was cordial, it was respectful. That does not mean it did not get intense or emotional at times, but it was civil, and I think the job that Rahm played in some of this is helping us find some common ground and being more of a mediator than anything else.

MS. ROMANO: One of your colleagues said that they didn't think Chairman Waxman was listening. You were talking--not just you, but seven of you or six of you were talking and he just wasn't connecting until Rahm came over. Would that be accurate, or an overstatement, or┬┐

MR. ROSS: Well, I think in discussions early on, there was a lot more listening than action.

MS. ROMANO: Ah, okay.

MR. ROSS: And I think, just in the intensity of the negotiations over the last two weeks, we were able to both start negotiating in good faith and to try and give the American people the kind of healthcare reform they need and want.

MS. ROMANO: Did the House leadership underestimate where the philosophy of the House was? I mean, did they think the House was much further to the left than it is?

MR. ROSS: Oh, I don't know. That would be a question for the leadership.

I can tell you that there are, in my opinion, about 70 conservative Democrats in the House. There are about 90 liberals in the house, and that's 160, and there's 200--I think 258 Democrats in the House. That means there's another 100 out there are that are kind of in the middle, more of the moderates, if you will.

So, we have a lot of different opinions within the Democratic caucus, and that's because that--you know, I think more so than the Republican Party, we reflect America on the Democratic side of the aisle, and that's a healthy thing. I mean, that's what democracy is all about.

I mean, our forefathers never envisioned that a handful of staff write a bill and you rush it through a committee without reading it and you rush it to the floor without reading it, and you pass it just because you're a Democrat and Democrats told you to do that. I mean, that was not what our founding fathers envisioned, and that's what we're trying to do here, the seven of us that stood up on the Committee and said, we're for healthcare reform but we don't want to do it this way; we want to slow down.

That's really--you know, if you take healthcare reform out of it, it could have been any issue. The message was that we want to be involved in helping draft and write legislation and we want to have time to read it and we want to have time to discuss it with our constituents, who send us here to be their voice.

MS. ROMANO: Okay. Was part of your concern also getting out there on a bill before the Senate showed their hand, which is what has happened with Energy with the energy bill? I mean, did you want to see a little bit more from the Senate before you guys got out there?

MR. ROSS: I think there are a lot of members that wanted to be sure that we had a bill that at least was close to probably what will end up coming out of the Conference Committee.

But you know, our make-up in the House is different than the Senate, and getting a bill identical to the Senate through the House to give all the concessions that the conservatives need then means that they would still be stuck in committee for the opposite reason: They would be stuck there because the liberals would have a problem with it. So, you've got to find common ground, but I think the reality is we have a better idea today than we did two days ago on which direction the Senate is moving.

And quite frankly, there's a lot of provisions in the bill that the Senate has I like a lot better than the provisions in the House bill. But again, this is not about passing a healthcare reform law today. This is about moving five bills along through a very complex and complicated and lengthy legislative process that, at the end of the day, hopefully will reflect the kind of healthcare reform that I can vote for.

MS. ROMANO: So, you don't see this as an ending at all, that you struck this deal. I mean, there's still a lot--

MR. ROSS: Oh, this is just the beginning.

I'm surprised of all the national attention on this, quite frankly, because all we're saying is, as members of the Energy and Commerce Committee, we've reached an agreement to advance one of five bills that are moving through the legislative process. I believe there's ten more hurdles for them to clear before a bill goes to the President for a signature.

And so, this is just a small part of a very lengthy process and none of us know how the bill is going to look at the end of the day, when these five bills are merged and get through the next ten steps they've got to go, but I hope that it will be a bill that I can support, because I understand the need to get healthcare reform done.

MS. ROMANO: Congressman, you're from a safe district, but are you worried about some of the other Blue Dogs? Some of them have had a pretty rough time going home for the last break after the energy vote.

I'm always concerned about our conservative Democrats from marginal districts, for a lot of reasons, because we need to keep them here, because without them, the Democratic Party is in the minority again. You know, take the Blue Dog Coalition, for example, 52 members strong.

And so, it's important that--and it is not so much about the politics, it is just who we are and what we believe and our value system.

MS. ROMANO: But does the leadership understand that? I mean, the White House might understand┬┐

MR. ROSS: I think everybody understands it much better today than they did two weeks ago.

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