Post Politics Hour

Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 21, 2009; 11:00 AM

Discuss the latest news about the Obama administration and the world of politics with Ben Pershing, who writes the daily Rundown for The Post's Political Browser. Pershing was online July 21 at 11 a.m. ET.


Ben Pershing: Good morning everyone. There's news breaking out all over the place here on Capitol Hill. Health care negotiations are underway in both the House and Senate, there's a key vote coming today in the Senate on the Obama administration's efforts to kill the F-22 fighter program, and Susan Collins just announced she'd be the fourth Republican to back Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court. I'd also be happy to talk about how awesome the Dodgers are. Let's get started.


Fairfax, Va.: Why doesn't someone shine the spotlight on the amazing health care benefits of our elected reps? Sure, it's easy for them to sit back and say everything is fine, we can't afford to change things, when they recieve the Cadillac of health care (at taxpayer expense). How much could we save if they cut back on their benefits?!

Ben Pershing: Actually, the fine health care benefits of members of Congress come up all the time in this debate. Several different members have proposed plans that would essentially say all Americans would have access to the same benefits members have. And an amendment passed in the Senate HELP Committee mandating that if the final health reform package includes a "public insurance option," members of Congress would have to enroll in it.


Boston: Is it politically worse for a president not to get anything passed than to pass something that is likely not to work? To use more loaded terms to accentuate the point, is it worse to be impotent than incompetent?

Ben Pershing: That's a good question. Yes, I suppose it would be better for Obama to pass nothing then to pass a bad bill. But the issue for the president is that if the bill really doesn't work, we probably won't know that with any certainty for several years. So that's a long-term problem. If Obama fails to get reform through after pledging to do so, then that's a political problem for him right away.


Independent voter: What do moderate Democrats want to change in the House plan? Haven't seen a clear answer to this anywhere so thought I'd ask...

Ben Pershing: In general, the Blue Dog Democrats complain that the current House health care plan costs too much, would hurt small businesses and wouldn't do enough to protect rural health care providers. Some critics have argued that the Blue Dogs' position is contradictory -- they complain about the cost, while at the same time resisting any cuts to Medicare providers, etc. And they won't support tax increases. So some Democrats are definitely frustrated because they think their moderate/conservative members are opposing the leadership's plan without proposing a viable alternative.


Columbia, Mo: Why is the issue labelled "health care reform" when most of the arguing seems to be about "health cost shifting"? The government wants to shift the costs to the private sector and those who made bad health choices want to shift the cost to those who made good choices; e.g., no non-smoker discount.

Ben Pershing: But there are also proposals being considered -- electronic medical records, comparative effectiveness research on different treatments, eliminating waste and fraud -- that could clearly be labeled "reform."


South Riding, Va.: I am somewhat surprised to hear that the bulk of the stimulus money has yet to be spent. What is taking them so long? I consider a stimulus as spending more money than usual. Yes, the federal government is spending more, but, even with the stimulus, Virginia still needs to cut billions of dollars from its budget. So, instead of a stimulus, it is really more of a way for states to not cut as much spending as they would otherwise need to?

Ben Pershing: To answer the last part of your question, yes, the stimulus is helping some states avoid making larger budget cuts. But in most cases the stimulus money is intended for projects that the states weren't necessarily going to spend money on anyway. As for the pace of spending, tens of billions of dollars has been spent, but there is a real debate between the administration and Republican critics over whether it is being spent quickly enough to help the economy. One factor to remember -- the faster the money is spent, the harder it is to keep track of the money and conduct proper oversight. Shoveling money out the door can easily lead to fraud and abuse.


Max Baucus: So, will there be any repercussions for Max Baucus taking all that money from health care lobbyists while in the thick of negotiation? Yeah, didn't think so. Are we really that apathetic of a population? It's terrifying that we leave the writing of legislation like to people whose interests lie in pleasing those who line their re-election coffers with the most green.

Ben Pershing: Welcome to Washington. You can complain about the current campaign finance system -- lots of people have -- but as long as the current rules are in place companies (through their PACs) are free to give money to whichever lawmakers they choose and the lawmakers are free to take it. The Senate Finance chairman is always going to get money from health insurance companies. The question for you is whether you think Baucus and other members who take the contributions are automatically corrupted by it.


Michael Steele's Strings: Is it me or has Michael Steele been sticking close to traditional Republican Party talking points and mantra since Rush slammed him for his "anti-Rush" comments? Before Steele's reaction to Rush's slam, I thought Republicans had successfully picked someone with vision and independent thought to bring the GOP back into prominence. However, like Milbank says, Steele seems more like a puppet. Milbank - Health Care for Dummies

Ben Pershing: Steele is in an odd position. One of the things that initially made him an attractive candidate for the GOP chairmanship to his Republican colleagues was his ability to be different and sharp and use some humor. Remember his speech at the Republican convention -- "Drill Baby Drill!"? But since he got burned early on in his tenure for saying some unwise things, now he's being much more cautious and, as Milbank points out, reading from a script instead of speaking off the cuff.

What I really noted from Dana's column was the part where Steele wouldn't answer a specific question about health care reform, saying he doesn't "do policy." Well then why are you giving a speech on health care?


Slow down, you move too fast: Simon and Garfunkel sang this ("Feeling Groovy/59th Street Bridge Song"), and now it's Michael Steele's refrain, but is going too fast on health care reform going to resonate with voters? I could see something like "Do it right, or it'll be worse than doing anything," but "slow down"? Some might surmise that the GOP doesn't have its own plan ready to go, after 8 years in power. And for Steele to refuse to answer a question by saying he doesn't do policy. He just did policy, by telling Obama to go slower (and on several other occasions). Can this guy keep his job?

Ben Pershing: The "slow down" message might work if it's tied to the idea that this doesn't have to be done in the next three weeks. If it's designed to say, "Let's not do it at all this year," then that might get Steele and other Republicans in some trouble.


Euless, Tex.: Although it was classy of Obama to extend Cheney's secret service protection, I don't think he should have. Cheney is a multi-millionaire who can afford his own protection and should stop using taxpayers money. Whatever problems he has, he created for himself. Maybe he could get a deal with Blackwater?

Ben Pershing: Good line on Blackwater, but I don't think too many people object to the idea that former presidents and vice presidents can or should get extended Secret Service protection, whatever you think of their politics. They make tempting targets for terrorists, don't they?


Alexandria, Va.: Ben,

Where is Ted Kennedy? Yes, I know he has brain cancer, but now that everyone is saying that this bill is going down hill, wouldn't his presence help boost the debate and bolster the Obama Administrations claims? Is he just waiting for the right moment, or do you think we will hear him weigh in at all in the future?

Ben Pershing: I think Kennedy is doing his best to weigh in on the debate by phone, and his staff is involved, but most Democrats do say it would be helpful if he were in the Senate in person helping lead the negotiations. He just doesn't have a choice -- he's not up for that physically.


Monroe Doctrine, ne1?: The Post quotes VP Biden as saying in Ukraine, "We don't recognize . . . any spheres of influence.:" Of course, this is aimed at Russia's desire to control states formerly part of the USSR, but it raises the larger question of how the US now applies (or fails to apply) the Monroe Doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine was clearly imperialistic, at least in tone, which is probably why it's not much invoked today, but has the US ever really repudiated it? Is Biden really saying that the US has rejected it?

Ben Pershing: Flashing back to my old high school and college history classes here: I think the Monroe Doctrine has always been more understood than spoken, at least in the last 100 years or so, right? I don't think many US presidents have actually said, "We control Latin America," though they might say what happens in that region affects "U.S. strategic interests," etc. There's also the fact that -- correctly or not -- Americans generally believe our influence on our neighboring countries is good, while Russia's influence on its neighboring countries is often bad.


Alexandria, Va.: As he did in 1993, William Kristol is publicly advising Republicans to just kill the health care bill. It worked very well for the GOP in the '90s, but my question is why in the world would the Democrats fall in the same trap all over again? If the Dems with their large majorities are not able to pass a health care bill, is there any evidence to suggest that the voters won't respond the same way we did in 1994 by throwing out the majority?

Ben Pershing: It's not as though Democrats can be tricked into not passing a health care bill. As Obama himself often says, this is really difficult, complicated stuff. It's not just a matter of will power -- Democrats disagree internally on almost every major aspect of reform. That doesn't mean they can't overcome those differences to get a bill passed, but it does mean that the difficulty here doesn't just stem from some Republican political strategy.


Michael Steele: Milbank forgot to mention the best part of Steele's presentation. Someone asked him if he supported an "individual mandate" and he had absolutely no idea what that was (and asked to use one of his lifelines). Since this was a well publicized bone of contention between Obama and Clinton during the primaries, that tells me that someone hasn't been paying attention for about a year and a half.

Ben Pershing: Like Steele said, he doesn't do policy. Which is fine. But then don't send him out in front of reporters purportedly to talk about policy.


Rockville, Md.: Obama's Waterloo?

Isn't the rather raw display of ambition a problem for the Republicans? Can it be used to bring some Democrats back in line? I am at the point where I want something new and really think it CAN be paid for.

Ben Pershing: Obama made a point of highlighting that comment yesterday -- Jim DeMint said last week that health care could be Obama's "Waterloo," and if it doesn't pass it will "break him." Democrats were smart to seize on this quote, because with this one sentence, DeMint makes it sound like the goal here is political victory, not improving the nation's health care. (DeMint has also given a policy-based argument for his opposition to Obama's plan, but that's not what's going to get attention when you use such strong rhetoric elsewhere.)


Blue Dog democrats: Of course their health care position is contradictory (It's too expensive, but you should increase what Medicare pays in my district!) These are largely the same self-anointed "fiscally conservative" Democrats pushing for the super expensive F-22 fighters the Pentagon doesn't want nor need, and that voted for every off the books war appropriation --no strings attached-- Bush ever sent them. This is their classic routine, and they won't stop it until people stop mistaking them for serious and principled people.

Ben Pershing: To be fair, looking beyond health care, it's not just Blue Dog Democrats who can be accused of parochialism. It's not just Blue Dogs fighting for the F-22, it's also Republicans and just a wide array of members who have some part of the program based in their districts. Same thing happened on the climate bill -- to get that passed in the House, Dem leaders had to cut all kinds of deals with members of all stripes to protect their districts.


Arlington, Va.: I liked Dave Barry's explanation of the Monroe Doctrine and Roosevelt Corollary: "Other countries aren't allowed to mess around in Latin America. But we can. Heh heh heh."

Ben Pershing: That sums it up nicely. Biden could have said to Russia, "We control our neighbors, you don't get to control yours. Heh heh heh." Actually, knowing Biden, he might have said that.


Atlanta: Betting you've read about the political sex scandals involving "C Street" house.

Do you think will have any effect on the members of Congress that live there is home states?

Also, commentators also talk "the effect on children" when these political sex scandals break. Just curious Mr. Pershing, do you recall the political sex scandal you hear about as a child and were there any long lasting effects? The Political Enclave That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Ben Pershing: Hmm. I actually don't remember any particularly juicy political sex scandals from when I was a kid. I'm sure they happened, but I didn't hear about them. I was about 12 years old when the Bob Packwood scandal happened. I remember that, though I wouldn't say it scarred me.


Ain't Steele Chairman of the Republican National Committee?: I guess Limbaugh does policy.

Ben Pershing: Again, the RNC chair doesn't necessarily have to know policy. It's a political job, and a fundraising job. Just send someone else to give the speech. Or don't do it at the National Press Club, where, you know, the press likes to hang out and ask questions and stuff.


Portland, Ore.: I was born and raised in Canada, and I don't remember my grandparents being killed in hospital because a Ottawa bureaucrat decided so. What is up with the Republics smearing Canadian Healthcare lately.

Tommy Douglas (also Kiefer Sutherland's maternal grandfather) was the man who start Universal Healthcare in Canada and last year was voted "Greatest Canadian" by the public.

How are the Republicans getting away with trashing our healthcare system. While not perfect, barely any Canadians went to scrap it and the 6 that do are all on Republican anti-reform ads.

Ben Pershing: Thanks for your thoughts. Really, I just wanted to print your question because of the Kiefer Sutherland factoid. Maybe Jack Bauer can reform health care.


DeMints and Kristol's comments: Just as a matter of pure politics, one would think that the Dems would take a look at that and say regardless of our internal diffferences, we have to pass some kind of reform or otherwise we are toast. I can't beleive that the Baucus and Blue Dogs types don't see that!

Ben Pershing: I think some Democrats think they can get away with passing some sort of modest, incremental reforms that don't change vast portions of the current health care system. Of course, a lot of experts think only sweeping change will do the trick, whether you're talking about reducing the number of uninsured or cutting future costs, which are spiraling out of control.


Mannywood: Will Manny be testifying on the Hill the next time the Dodgers play in DC to make sure insurance companies cover the costs of female fertility drugs?

Ben Pershing: I would love to see that happen. Though I might have trouble keeping my reportorial objectivity in check if it does.


Ben Pershing: Thanks for all the fine questions everyone. Enjoy the rest of your Tuesday.


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