Post Politics Hour: Lieberman and health-care reform

Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 17, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post congressional reporter Paul Kane took your questions about the latest political news, including the impact of Sen. Joe Lieberman on the Senate health-care proposal and his political future.

A transcript follows.


Paul Kane: Breaking news: Vinny Cerrato out as Redskins GM. OK, OK, I know this isn't the sports chat, this is politics and there's lots going on here on Capitol Hill at the moment. So that's the focus. But the Redskins are such an ingrained part of the culture in DC, it's hard to explain to outsiders. I bet The Post has lost tens of millions of dollars in revenue -- through falling street sales and fewer ads in sports -- because the Skins have stunk this decade. It's a known fact that we sell more papers the day after a big win.

I remember when Bill Cohen, the first US senator I ever really covered closely, went from being a rank-and-file senator to Defense secretary. Next season, I looked up in the owner's box, and there was SecDef Cohen and his wife watching the Skins from the best vantage point possible.

OK, let's go to the questions. It's legislative end game time. Sorry I started this chat late, I was reading an old Bill Simmons' column on Tiger, so I lost track of time. (I'm behind on today's Tiger news, so feel free to send me some links to any blockbuster stories today!)



Hampton Cove, Ala.: Is it true Obama is threatening to close an Air Force base in Nebraska unless Senator Nelson votes for the Senate health care bill?

Paul Kane: No, this is not true. Nelson's camp adamantly denies it. Also, think this through people. As bad as Obama has played this health-care debate -- and I think both sides agree he's played it badly -- imagine what would happen if, in a fit of rage, the commander in chief closed a MILITARY BASE because some senator didn't vote his way on a domestic agenda item. Imagine it.

First of all, it might be an impeachable offense. Secondly, he'd be harming the military out of pure spite. And the Republicans would kill him for it. And so would the public.

That's the problem with conspiracies. They're all mostly too good to be true. Except those involving Tiger.


Chicago: Is it true the Senate Republicans are trying to delay the legislative process by insisting on having the 767-page bill read out loud in its entirety? How is this good faith? Why isn't this front page news?

Paul Kane: Tom Coburn, for a brief couple hours yesterday, refused a unanimous consent request to waive the reading of an amendment offered by Bernie Sanders. Waiving the reading of legislation and amendments is a common courtesy.

But Coburn, an ardent opponent of the health-care plan, used this tactic to his advantage yesterday.

Here's the deal: Dems were furious, they were angry, but they weren't bitter at Coburn. I'm told that Coburn, who is almost always incredibly honest with Democrats about the lengths he will go to beat them, approached Sanders on the floor early yesterday and told him exactly what he was going to do.

He told Bernie not to take it personally, that he was sorry he was doing it on his amendment but he saw a way to block the overall bill. I'm told that Bernie wasn't all that enraged. At least not in a deeply personal way.

In a weird way, I think Bernie almost appreciated the honesty and loved learning a parliamentary that he -- someone holding avowedly socialist views -- will use himself somewhere down the road.


Smallville, Kansas: What is it with air travel these days? Don't the airlines realize how important it is for Chuck Schumer to be in constant touch with Sen. Reid? My God, the entire future of heathcare is at stake here and the airlines want to maintain petty rules to keep their planes from crashing -- it is ridiculous.

Paul Kane: Let he/she who is without sin on an airline cast the first stone at the Chuckwagon.

I'm sorry, I'm going to be an apologist for Schumer here. Yes, he should have turned his phone off; but no, he didn't actually call her a b**ch to her face. He waited till she walked away and told Sen. Gillibrand that the flight attendant was a b**ch.

Who among us has not done something similar?


Westcliffe, Colo.: Is it true that President Obama is thinking of making an emergency appointment for Joe Lieberman?

Wait for it: Ambassador to Mars. George Walker Bush as attache.

Maybe they can unstuck one of the Rovers up there. Now that's change we can believe in!

Rufus in the Sangres

Paul Kane: It's a secret mission to the moon. Remember the stories about how we bombed the moon?

that's where Obama is gonna send Lieberman.


Louisville, Ky.: Hello Paul,

Nelson of Neb. seems to be the final vote needed for cloture. From the start of HCR legislation, this guy has seemed to persistently be at odds with the majority of his democratic caucus. Do you feel his stance is a real reflection of the majority of his constituency on HCR? How much does "Mutual of Omaha" et al influence the equation?

Even if he surrenders his vote, after an up or down vote, which should pass the Senate, the final bill must come back to the institution for a new round of games in overcoming the filibuster. Maybe the next order of business in the Senate should be repairing the dysfunctional Senate, itself. It has become much more that a "cooling saucer," and really obstructs progress, rather than fostering debate, needed on important legislation; often, because of personal resentments, etc. rather than substantive challenges. Thanks.

Paul Kane: I've said this before privately and I'll say it publicly: You folks who are blaming the bogeyman of the insurance industry are just looking for a straw man.

Yes, the insurance industry has fought this thing. But it's been a pretty weak fight they've put up, in terms of a grassroots campaign and widespread ad campaign. There's not a single TV ad that's been run against this h-care plan that is the least bit memorable, there's been nothing quite like the Swift Boat ads, the 3 AM wakeup call, the Harry and Louise stuff. It's all been a very basic lobbying campaign.

I think those who support this h-care legislation need to understand something: Folks like Ben Nelson generally haven't liked it very much. And, as polls have shown consistently, the overall legislation has been on a slowly downward trend for 6 months or so.

Until you change that trajectory, you're not going to convince Democrats from conservative terrain that they should endorse it.


Potomac, Md.: My wife was an executive at an HMO and a medical doctor. I told her she should read the health-care plan since it "improves" health-care. She knows I don't believe it. This brings up the question, who should read the health-care plan (all doctors, all medical students, all nurses, all HMO personnel, all health insurance personnel, all health-care lawyers, all health-care personnel working for the Government, all newspaper reporters (including Paul Kane) reporting on health-care)? If only a few intelligensia read the bill, doesn't that effect the quality of the bill? What health-care bills and/or amendments do you read?

Paul Kane: I have absolutely no intention of reading the bill. There, I admitted it.

The bill is written in legislative-ese. That's the way bills are always written, not in a way for easy public consumption. Deal with it. Accept that. What you should read -- and what all the people you pointed to should read -- are reports from the CBO and CRS explaining what the proposals would actually do.


Elin to divorce Tiger: Report: Wife to divorce Woods (ESPN)

Paul Kane: Wow. I'm kinda stunned by this. I thought Elin would wait it out in a Jenny Sanford fashion. This is the single biggest implosion that's ever occurred to a celebrity/sports star at the very top of his game. Others -- OJ, Mike Vick, Rob Lowe -- have had really bad things that they've done become public, but at times when they just weren't this big of a deal.

Think of it this way. Go back a month in time. Aside from Barack Obama, who else in America could have generated this much buzz-insanity by having a private dark side of multiple affairs come out in public?

I'm listening to Springsteen right now -- thanks, Genius -- and I think he's a huge deal. But he's already gone through multiple rumor-mongerings about his infidelity. Not that big of a deal.

Maybe Hillary Clinton would be a bigger deal. If she were caught in an affair, it would be huge news. (The simple fact is, nothing her husband has done/could do in this field would make as much news as Tiger.)


Washington, DC: "...the commander in chief closed a MILITARY BASE because some senator didn't vote his way on a domestic agenda item. Imagine it. First of all, it might be an impeachable offense."

Impeachment is for "high crimes and misdemeanors." -- I don't see any crime here.

Paul Kane: Nor did Bill and Monica.


Base Closing: This ridiculous rumor was reported by Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard. Does anyone actually believe that Goldfarb has sources privy to a private conversation between the White House Chief of Staff and a Democratic Senator?

Paul Kane: Also, to be clear here, military bases in general aren't closed unless there's a BRAC commission set up to close them. That's not the law, but it's the practice. The US Senate would not allow the administration to close a single military base, it just wouldn't, unless everyone on the base had something out of a bad sci-fi movie disease. They don't allow individual bases to be closed like that, because it gives the executive too much power. So they bond together to block bases from being closed.

Until they all realize there are too many bases and collectively agree to set up the BRAC process.


Chicago IL: Thanks for answering my question about Sen. Coburn. I guess being honest about your malevolent intentions is what passes for integrity in the Senate these days.

Paul Kane: Let's put it this way, as irritated as Democrats are by Coburn, they feel he's honest to them. He tells them, to their face, exactly how he plans to knife them, and he promises to never sneak up from behind and knife them.

The worst part for Dems isn't that they're about to get knifed, it's that they know they're about to get knifed and can't stop it. They have an odd level of respect for Coburn in that matter.

Jim DeMint, on the other hand, doesn't give them those courtesies, and they hate him for it. It's a very pure level of hatred they have for DeMint.


Elin: "Paul, this is Elin. I'm going through a rough time right now and I'm looking for a shoulder to cry on. Do you have some time?"

Paul, Paul, PAUL! Wake up, Paul. You're daydreaming...

Paul Kane: I'm here for you, Elin. I am. Shoot me an email once this chat is finished, we can talk then.


Philadelphia: One annoying fact about Joe Lieberman: since most people expect him to retire in 2012, he has zero incentive to pay attention to public opinion in Connecticut or anywhere else.

Paul Kane: Not true. Most people think he's keeping all his options open. He's told The Hill that he's considering running for the Dem nomination. He's told CNN he'll consider running on the GOP ticket. He's also said he'll consider running again as an indy.


Washington, DC: I am baffled and dismayed by the unrelenting and venomous tone of the attacks on Sen. Lieberman. As just some of the examples, one of your colleagues accuses him of causing the death of hundreds of thousands of people and another far left blogger attacks his wife's work for a breast cancer charity and demands her outster. This is insane! Lieberman's motives are ascribed to his personal pique, as though the lefties who attack him aren't motivated by their anger at his beating their beloved Ned Lamont at the polls and the other 99 senators have only the purest of motives for their health care stances. Lieberman represents a state where insurers provide jobs for thousands of people and pay huge amounts of state tax -- of course, he should be representing their interests. All this hysteria does is make feel that Lieberman must be doing something right by angering so many people. The more power to him.

Paul Kane: Here's a rebuttal on Lieberman. For what it's worth, I'm done taking substance questions on Joe-mentum. I'm just tired of the back and forth. There are 100 senators, you know.


You folks who are blaming the bogeyman of the insurance industry are just looking for a straw man. : You just don't understand PR. In my youth the car companies ran a great campaign to keep us from demanding safe cars by pointing to speeding and drunk driving. The insurance companies have run a better one. By pointing to red herrings such as tort reform or competition across state lines (gutting state regulation) and valid but very difficult reforms such as fee for service, they have keep the debate away from the fact that they waste $400 Billion each year on high overhead and compliance costs. Most people do not know that other advanced countries get getter health care at HALF the cost per person.

Look when the Post proposed meetings in your publisher's house so that lobbyists could influence reporting, who sponsored the first one? A health insurance company. That idea didn't work, but plenty of their ideas did work.

Paul Kane: You may be right, but what you've described is a fairly basic, straight-forward lobbying campaign.

The insurance industry hasn't used any sorta new and innovative techniques here. Watch TV for a couple hours tonight and count how many ads you see about the health-care debate. There won't be that many.

This has been a pretty straight forward lobbying effort. Set up meetings, make your point. The public appetite for this legislation has fallen without very much of a public effort by the opponents.

Correction to your Post salon thing: Our publisher targeted the health-care people, they didn't target us. She knew how much money they had and knew that the issue was ripe, so that's why they targeted Kaiser. It's a key difference, which makes The Post look worse, I realize. But to some degree it's exactly what happens with a lot of lobbying on K Street. The demand is created here and lobbyists, PR people, lawyers (and in this case, a newspaper) go out and find the corporate interest that doesn't even plan to spend $$$ on such-and-such thing, until they're told by some smart DC hand to do so.


Tampa, Fla.: Don't forget Schumer forcing a flight to leave early so he could get back to DC on his schedule, stranding less-important peasants who didn't realize that our air travel system runs on Chuckie Time.

This latest incident shows Senator Chuckie's contempt for the rest of us not in The World's Most Exclusive Club.

Paul Kane: That 1st incident is brutal, I won't defend the Chuckwagon on that one. Very true. But the b**ch comment just isn't that big a deal.


If Hiliary was President...: do you think the health debate may have been different?

Paul Kane: I'm not sure the end game would be any different, but the players involved sure would be. She would not have Rahm as her CoS, he'd be here in the Capitol in on the negotiations from that side of it.

Obama would still be in the Senate and could well be playing the role of Dean, publicly hectoring her to stay pure on the issue. Sen. Joe Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, would be the one screaming about how he's missing out on his trip to Copenhagen because of these weekend votes. About the only person who would have a similar role is Tom Vilsack, the Ag secretary.


Dunn Loring, VA: Did you actually see the Coburn/Sanders exchange yesterday? I wonder because others (e.g., Milbank) wrote that Sanders was purple with rage. Also, what are your thoughts on the disregard of Senate rules, which require a bill/amendment to be read through completely once it's started?

Paul Kane: He was purple with rage on the Senate floor during his speech, yes, I saw that.

But I've told privately, in a background/off-record context, that his level of vitriol wasn't as personally directed toward Coburn so much as it was to the whole situation.


Philadelphia, PA: "As bad as Obama has played this health-care debate -- and I think both sides agree he's played it badly..."

Really? Is it only those of us who aren't on "sides" who think he's actually playing it as well as possible? Given the near-impossible terrain?

Paul Kane: Good point about the "near impossible terrain." Health-care battles are to domestic politics what wars in Afghanistan are to great empires.

And Obama's trying both, at the same time. Wow.


re : the Bill and Monica comment: Bill Clinton's offense was not having an affair but lying about it under oath to a grand jury.

Paul Kane: Continuing down this imaginary path. So Obama closes a Nebraska Air Force base in 2011 after Nelson votes against health care, killing it. Of course he publicly says it was because the base is useless and not needed.

Then, in 2012 or 2014, Republicans take over Congress. Darrell Issa gets to become the new Henry Waxman. Subpoenas fly. Eventually, he gets the email that proves the whole point.

Would it lead to impeachment? I don't know, but it would be such a huge scandal, so incredibly damaging to Obama's image, that it would be his Watergate/Monica/Iran Contra. Except only worse, because of the way he entered office with such high expectations and such a pronounced effort to change the culture in Washington.


Hollywood Hogan: Tiger's career as a mainstream pitchman is over. Bill Simmons's reader has it right: go full-out heel. Move to a Vegas penthouse, sleep with babe after babe, wear sunglasses everywhere, grow stubble, do Captain Morgan ads, juice up without apologizing, and then run roughshod over the PGA. You'll get tons of golf ads and be the go-to guy for selling guys products to the 18-35 male demographic.

Paul Kane: Tiger and John Daly would hang out all the time in this scenario.


downward trend: Hahaha. I laughed when I read you boss' take on on that "Downward trend" in his article yesterday. Eight paragraphs about growing opposition, but no numbers, so I skipped the rest of the blather and went straight to the crosstabs. Yep that opposition is awesome: 63% of Americans want Medicare expanded to 55 year-olds! The nihilist 30% opposed it, but then again they are like Mikey, they'll oppose anything.

Paul Kane: Individual little items inside the overall health-care bubble have always polled better than the entire legislation. Public plan, for instance, has always run ahead of the total legislative package.

But it's undeniable that the overall legislation is just not that popular.


Boonsboro, Md.: Phillies: better with Halladay or Lee? Eagles: Better with Westbrook or McCoy? Just thought I would distract you with talk about teams that actually win, unlike the local NATS, Skins, and Democrats.

Paul Kane: The Phillies trading of Lee and getting Halladay reminds me of cap-and-trade. I understand what the end goal is -- getting Halladay for the next 4 seasons, 1 under the current contract and 3 more in the new deal, as opposed to the likelihood of having Lee gone after just next year.

But man, it was really complicated to get to this conclusion. I feel like we needed Henry Waxman to explain it all.

PS -- I was not in McCoy's camp early this year, but I've come around. What I think will be perfect is if Westbrook and McCoy can both play.


Reconciliation: Hi Paul,

I've heard this idea thrown around, especially in the last few days. I actually think that even though it is drastic they should do it and get the bill that provides real healthcare reform. However wouldn't Senator Byrd have a real problem with the use of this strategy since he's the one who came up with the restrictive rules for the procedure in the first place? I wonder if anyone has thought about that.

Paul Kane: There's absolutely zero talk of reconciliation being used. None. Zero. Done. Over. Liberals need to understand that this option is gone, long gone.


Who among us has not done something similar? : I would guess everybody but two people: the Senator and his online apologist.

Paul Kane: Oh come on, you won't even give us your name. You can't fool us. We know you've muttered stuff under your breath to someone in the airline industry, if not actually broke down and started screaming at them. We know it, even if you won't admit it.


Paul Kane: Alright folks, time to go. The legislative end game awaits, as do about 100 emails from this morning.

I hope this holiday season finds you doing good, spending time with your family. I'm not sure if I'll be back for the New Year's Eve -- Thursday, Dec 31 -- chat or not. Gosh, I really hope the Senate's not still in at that point. We'll see. If I don't chat again this year, happy holidays and happy New Year. See you in 2010. -pk


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