Health Summit 2010

Sen. Lamar Alexander makes opening remarks at White House health summit

CQ Transcriptions
Thursday, February 25, 2010; 11:39 AM

MCCONNELL: Thank you very much, Mr. President.

John Boehner and I have selected Lamar Alexander of Tennessee to make our opening framing statement. And let me turn to him.

ALEXANDER: Thanks, Mitch and John.

Mr. President, thank you very much for the invitation. Appreciate being here. Several of us were part of the summits that you had a year ago. And so I've been asked to try to express what Republicans believe about where we've gotten since -- since then.

As a former governor, I also want to try to represent governors' views. They have a big stake in it. I know you met with some governors just the last few days.

We believe that we -- our views represent the views of a great number of the American people who have tried to say in every way they know how -- through town meetings, through surveys, through elections in Virginia and New Jersey and Massachusetts -- that they oppose the health care bill that passed the Senate on Christmas Eve.

And, more importantly, we want to talk about we believe we have a better idea. And that's to take many of the examples that you just mentioned about health care costs, make that our goal, reducing health care costs, and start over, and let's go step by step toward that goal.

And we'd like to briefly mention -- I'll briefly mention, others will talk more about it as we go along -- what those ideas are, what some of them are, what some of the suggestions we have are.

I'd like to begin with a story. When I was elected governor, some of the media went up to the Democratic leaders of the legislature and said, "What are you going to do with this new young Republican governor?" a few years ago. And they said, "I'm going to help him, because if he succeeds, our state succeeds." And they did that. That's the way we worked for eight years. And -- but often they had to persuade me to change my direction to get our state where it needed to go.

I'd like to say the same thing to you. I mean, we want you to succeed, because if you succeed, our country succeeds. But we would like, respectfully, to change the direction you're going on health care costs, and that's what I want to mention here in the next -- next few minutes.

I was trying to think about if there were any kind of event that this could be compared with, and I was thinking of the Detroit Auto Show, that you had invited us out to watch you unveil the latest model that you and your engineers had created and asked us to help sell it to the American people, and we go and you do that and we look at it and we say, "That's the same model we saw last year," and we didn't like it and neither did they because we don't think it gets us where we need to go and we can't afford it.

So as they also say in Detroit, again, we think we have a better idea.

Your stories are a lot like the stories I hear. When I went home for Christmas after we had that 25 days of consecutive debate and voted on Christmas Eve on health care, a friend of mine from Tullahoma, Tennessee, said, "I hope you'll kill that health care bill."

And then, before the words were out of his mouth, he said, "But we've got to do something about health care costs. My wife has breast cancer. She got it 11 years ago. Our insurance is $2,000 a month. We couldn't afford it if our employer weren't helping us do that. So we've got to do something."

And that's about -- that's where we are. But we think to do that we have to start by taking the current bill and putting it on the shelf and starting from a clean sheet of paper.

Now, you've presented ideas, there's 11-page memo on the -- I think it's important for people to understand there's not a presidential bill. There's -- there are good suggestions and ideas on the Web. We've made our ideas. But it's said it's a lot like the Senate bill. It has more taxes, more subsidies, more spending.

So what that means is that when it's written, it'll be 2,700 pages, more or less, which means it'll probably have a lot of surprises in it. It means it'll cut Medicare by about half a trillion dollars and spend most of that on new programs, not on Medicare and making it stronger, even though it's going broke in 2015.

It means there'll be about a half trillion dollars of new taxes in it. It means that for millions of Americans premiums will go up, because those -- when people pay those new taxes, premiums will go up, and they will also go up because of the government mandates.

It means that from a governor's point of view, there are going to be what our Democratic governor calls the mother of all unfunded mandates. Nothing used to make me madder as a governor than when Washington politicians would get together and pass a big bill, take credit for it, and then send me the bill to pay, and that's exactly what -- what this does with the expansion of Medicare.

And in addition, it dumps 15 to 18 million low-income Americans into a Medicaid program that none of us want to be a part of because 50 percent of doctors won't see new patients. So it's like giving someone a ticket to a bus line where the buses only run half the time.

When fully implemented, the bill would spend about $2.5 trillion a year, and it still has the sweetheart deals in it. One's out, some are still in. I mean, what's fair about taxpayers in Louisiana paying less than taxpayers in Tennessee? And what's fair about protecting seniors in Florida and not protecting seniors in California and Illinois and Wyoming?

So our view, with all respect, is that this is a car that can't be recalled and fixed and that we ought to start over. But we'd like to start over.

When I go down on the floor, and I've been there a lot on this issue, some of my Democratic friends will say, "Well, Lamar, where's the Republican comprehensive bill?" And I say back, "Well, if you're waiting for Mitch McConnell to roll in a wheelbarrow in here with a 2,700-page Republican comprehensive bill, it's not going to happen," because we've come to the conclusion that we don't do comprehensive well.

We've watched the comprehensive economy-wide cap in trade. We've watched the comprehensive immigration bill. We had the best senators we've got working on that in a bipartisan way. We've watched the comprehensive health care bill. And they fall of their own weight.

Our country is too big, too complicated, too decentralized for Washington, a few of us here, just to write a few rules about remaking 17 percent of the economy all at once. That sort of thinking works in a classroom, but it doesn't work very well in our big, complicated country. And it doesn't work for most of us. I mean, if you look around the table, I'm sure it's true on the Democratic side as it is on the Republican, we've got shoe store owners and small-business people and a former county judge and we got three doctors. We've got people who are used to solving problems step by step.

And that's why we said 173 times on the Senate floor in the last six months of last year, we mentioned our step-by-step plan for reducing health care costs. And I'd like to just mention those in a sentence or two.

You mentioned Mike Enzi's work on the small-business health care plan. That's a good start. It came up in the Senate. He will explain why it covers more people, costs less, and helps small businesses offer insurance.

Two, helping Americans buy insurance across state lines. You've mentioned that yourself. Most of the governors I've talked to think that'd be a good way to increase competition.

Number three, put an end to junk lawsuits against doctors. In our state half the counties, pregnant women have to drive to the big city to have prenatal health care or to have their baby because the medical malpractice suits have driven up the insurance policies so high that doctors leave the rural counties.

Give states incentives to lower costs, number four.

Number five, expanding health savings accounts.

Number six, House Republicans have some ideas about how my friend in Tullahoma can continue to afford insurance for his wife who has had breast cancer. Because she has a preexisting condition, it makes it more difficult to buy insurance.

So there's six ideas. They're just six steps, maybe the first six, but combined with six others and six more and six others, they get us in the right direction.

Now, some say we need to rein in the insurance companies -- maybe we do -- but I think it's important to note that if we took all the profits of the insurance companies, the health insurance companies entirely away, every single penny of it, we could pay for two days of the health insurance of Americans, that would leave 363 days with costs that are too high.

ALEXANDER: So that's why we continue to insist that as much as we want to expand access and to do other things in health care, that we shouldn't expand a system that's this expensive, that the best way to reduce cost -- to increase access is to reduce cost.

Now, in conclusion, I have a suggestion and a request for how to make this a bipartisan and truly productive session. And I hope that those who are here will agree I've got a pretty record of working across party lines and of supporting the president when I believe he's right, even though other members of my party might not on -- on that occasion.

And my request is this -- is -- is before we go further today that the Democratic congressional leaders and you, Mr. President, renounce this idea of going back to the Congress and jamming through on a bipartisan -- I mean on a partisan vote through a little used process we call reconciliation your version of the bill.

You can say that this process has been used before, and that would be right. But it's never been used for anything like this. It's not appropriate to use to write the rules for 17 percent of the economy. Senator Byrd, who is the constitutional historian of the Senate, has said that it would be an outrage to run the health care bill through the Senate like a freight train with this process.

So this is the only place, the Senate, where the rights to the minority are protected. And sometimes, as Senator Byrd has said, the minority can be right. I remember reading Alexis de Tocqueville's books, which most of us have read. And he said in his American democracy that the greatest threat to the American democracy would be the tyranny of the majority.

When Republicans were trying to change the rules a few years ago -- you and I were both there. Senator McCain was very involved in that, about getting majority vote for judges. Then-Senator Obama said the following, "What we worry about is essentially having two chambers, the House and the Senate, who are simply majoritarian. Absolute power on either side. That's just not what the founders intended." Which is another way of saying that the founders intended the Senate to be a place where the majority didn't rule on big issues.

And Senator Byrd in his book -- or Senator Reid in his book, writing about the gang of 14, said that the end of the filibuster requiring 60 votes to pass a bill would be the end of the United States Senate. And I think that's why Lyndon Johnson in the '60s passed the civil rights bills in Everett Dirksen's office, the Republican leader's, because he understood that having a bipartisan bill not only would pass it, but it would help the country accept it.

Senator Pat Moynihan has said, before he died, that he couldn't remember a big piece of social legislation that passed that wasn't bipartisan.

And after World War II in this very house, and in the room back over here, President Truman and General Marshall would meet once a week with Senator Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and write the Marshall Plan.

And General Marshall said that sometimes Van was my right hand and sometimes he was his right hand. And we know how to do it.

I mean, John Boehner and George Miller did that on No Child Left Behind. Mike Enzi and Ted Kennedy wrote 35 bills together. You mentioned that in your opening remarks. You and I and many other senators worked together on the America Competes Act.

We know how to do that. We can do that on health care as well.

But to do that, we'll have to renounce jamming it through in a partisan way. And if we don't, then the rest of what we do today will -- will not be relevant.

I mean, the only thing bipartisan will be the opposition to the bill, and we'll be saying to the American people who have tried to tell us in every way they know how -- town halls and elections and surveys -- that they don't want this bill, that they would like for us to start over.

So if we can do that -- start over -- we can write a health care bill. It means putting aside jamming it through. It means working together the way General Marshall and Senator Vandenberg did.

It means reducing health care costs and making that our goal for now, and not focusing on the other goals. And it means going step by step together to re-earn the trust of the American people.

We'd like to do that. And we appreciate the opportunity that you've given us today to say what our ideas are and to move forward. Thank you very much.

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