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Chairman George Miller: The 'numbers were pretty close'

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George Miller chairs the Education and Labor Committee and is one of Nancy Pelosi's closest allies in the House. We spoke today about the mechanics of the vote, the problems with Stupak's compromise and what comes next for health-care reform.

Were you surprised at the slim margin for health-care reform?

We have been counting the votes on this legislation since we came back from Labor Day. We’ve been counting, in fact, since July. We’ve been in more or less continuous meetings with members. As the members learned more and more about the bill, our numbers continued to increase. We had a good handle on a lot of people.

Some suggested that the 220 votes were understated and that you had more votes to call on if needed. Is that accurate?

I think we were pretty close. [Laughs] I think these numbers were pretty close.

There were a lot of last-minute changes to the bill, in particular the Stupak amendment. How did that come about?

On Friday night, it became clear that we would not reach a majority vote if we did not allow an amendment to be voted on about abortion. Those negotiations were very serious.

Politico reported that you told colleagues, “There is now a pro-life majority in the House.” Is that true?

I don’t remember saying that, but it’s not inconsistent with what the votes say. That’s been the situation.

It’s striking that the Stupak amendment doesn’t really stop the government from subsidizing insurance coverage that includes abortions. The subsidy for employer-based insurance remains in place, for instance. This mainly hits poorer women who will be subsidized on the exchanges.

That’s one of the concerns. You’re in the employer-based system, you have coverage. If you lose your job and go into the exchange, then you don’t have coverage.

Was abortion the biggest issue in the final days? Did any other sticking points emerge?

That was really the topic of conversation. We saw it in committee mark ups. Because of the votes that are available, you were not going to be able to ignore this.

Of the 39 Democrats who voted against the legislation, was there a single concern that united them? What did they want?

I think if there was an overarching view, it was that their confidence in the cost of the bill was low. That played out in different ways. Some people had suggestions for what to do about it. Others just said they wanted to wait and see, even though we had the CBO letters and the assurances.

What’s always confused me about that objection is that the way to make the health-care cost less is to reform it more radically, striking closer to the core of the system, which is where the expense is generated. But the folks who worry about cost tend to revert back to the status quo rather than turning into relative radicals.

You have this interesting fact that the people most opposed to the robust public option were raising the most issues on cost and CBO was saying it would save 110 billion. That was real money! There were these inconsistencies that were very frustrating. But that’s what we were presented with.

Have you given any thought to who will be named to the conference committee, assuming that the Senate passes its bill?

No. I haven’t given that a moment’s thought yet. We’re really just trying to do whatever we can to help the Senate go forward. It’s a pretty self-contained body.

What can you do to help them?

I don’t know. The Senate has a different way of doing business. It’s much more one-on-one. The actions you’ve seen Harry Reid take so far suggest he’s having those continuous conversations with their members.

This bill will change in conference with the Senate, and it didn’t pass with a very large margin. Do you worry that the conference committee’s version will blow up the delicate compromise and lose crucial votes?

I think we get stronger with the conference report. I think that happens.

Why?

That’s this process. We always know there are people who wait for the conference report to vote. They generally vote for it. They know there will be changes. That’s the way it is. Is this difficult to do? Are the margins thin? But a lot of people have tried and failed. This isn‘t easy. If it were, people would have done it a long time ago. But by not doing it, everything has gotten worse for the health-care system, its customers, our families, our employers and the economy. Not doing it makes everything worse.

Photo credit: By Mark Wilson/Getty Images

By Ezra Klein  |  November 9, 2009; 4:00 PM ET
Categories:  Health Reform , Interviews  
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Comments

The thought that any progressive would consider giving up one iota of hard-won women's rights for this turd blossum reform makes me sick. And yet here's George Miller, the leadership's liaison to progressives, making just that argument.

Posted by: bmull | November 9, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

the real question is when the senate gets finished and then the committee's get finish and the Stupak ammendment is STILL in there will the progressives sign onto this to allow reform to pass. That and a public option trigger (if it comes to that) will be a mighty tough pill for them to swallow.

Posted by: visionbrkr | November 9, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse

The Stupak amendment will NOT be in the final bill. Get a grip folks. This is politics. Doesn't anyone in America understand negotiation and compromise? Maybe they don't do enough of it in their private lives, but this process is a give and take and god bless people like George Miller who have been there long enough to know how it works. This will not be a perfect bill. Doesn't anyone get that? But people like Dr. Marcia Angell and Dennis Kucinich prefer their saintly and perfectionist images to actually getting gritty and working out something that will push us forward, even a little bit. I love George Miller. He makes total sense.

Posted by: LindaB1 | November 9, 2009 8:37 PM | Report abuse

LindaB1,

and IF its not then how many conservative Democrats will you lose again in the House's final version? Your margin is razor thin as it is. To me there's no win for Democrats here. If they drop it they lose those conservative democrats in vulnerable districts and if they put it in they rightfully lose the pro choice Dems. I'd love to see Ezra give an estimation of a compromise because I can't see one.

Posted by: visionbrkr | November 10, 2009 10:04 AM | Report abuse

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