Rep. Jim Cooper: House health care bill was 'one of the best votes I ever cast'
Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) knows as much about health-care policy as anyone in Congress. He teaches the subject back home in Tennessee, promoted his own plan (to the anger of many Democrats) in 1994, and has been both a vocal advocate and critic of this year's reform fight. On Saturday, he voted for the House's health-care bill. Earlier today, he told me why.
What was the weekend like for you?
This was one of the best votes I ever cast. The key is to keep the reform process alive. There are many things in the House bill I disagree with. But the Senate bill is the more likely final product due to the difficulty of getting 60 votes over there. If we had dropped the baton at this stage, it wouldn’t have given the Senate a chance to improve the bill. It would have given the House what amounted to a one-chamber veto. The Senate could have powered through, but those folks are not noted for their courage. The House had to perform here. And I am thankful that in the nick of time the leadership realized how short they were on votes.
The slim margin surprised many observers. Do you buy the argument that there were a number of congressmen who would have voted for the bill if they’d been needed?
I think the actual number was closer to 210. The leadership had to move heaven and earth to get to 220. The achievement of the leadership was to corral the votes at the last minute, and that is a great achievement that should not be diminished, and they did that by making major concessions they didn’t want to make.
Those concessions all pointed in one direction. The public option was weakened, the vote on single payer was jettisoned and abortion rights were curtailed.
I really wasn’t involved in those processes. The failure of any vote on single payer was amazing to a lot of Democratic stalwarts. So was the permission to vote on Stupak and the large vote in favor of Stupak. One of the papers quoted Rep. George Miller saying there’s a pro-life majority in Congress. That’s painful for a lot of folks, but it’s the reason the Stupak compromise was necessary. The bill would’ve failed without that.
The argument over Stupak’s amendment was striking for how effectively it evaded questions of choice and focused on the Hyde amendment. They narrowed that debate very sharply.
They won the argument that their amendment was the continuation of current law. It shows how popular the status quo is. That’s the major problem health-care reform has always had. People prefer the devil they know. The default position is usually to do nothing.
But the debate is a continuing education process. Before the Stupak amendment, many of my friends had not realized that the government gives a $250 billion annual subsidy to employer-sponsored health care. If you understand today’s system, the Hyde amendment bans direct subsidies of abortion. It does not ban indirect subsidies of abortion, in particular the $250 billion that goes to employer-based health care. The bishops never noticed that. But this is the way education works in a democracy. It’s not easy or simple. But when people begin making decisions, they learn about lots of things they never noticed before.
It's the same with procedural things. In the Rules Committee’s explanation of the Stupak amendment, they said flat out that the Stupak amendment codifies the Hyde amendment. Most people didn’t realize that that’s the description from the Stupak amendment’s advocates, not necessarily the judgment of the Rules Committee’s staff. Like many things in Congress, lots of folks did not pay attention to the details. It looked like it just continued current law. But this turned out to be very important.
What was your role in the final days?
Exhausting, round-the-clock, nonstop small-group meetings that were part seminar and part therapy. What the bill went through was a near-death experience. One of the climactic moments was the caucus meeting two or three weeks ago. They took a public whip count. Normally whip counts are private. So this was astonishing to many members.
The specific question was whether you were for a robust public option or not. And they just went through the names. Early in the alphabet, one member answered that he was for that, but against the overall bill. Someone in leadership shouted out that that meant you were against the whole thing. So it became about reform as a whole. There were a shocking number of committee chairmen and regular members, not Blue Dogs or anything, who said they were against the reform. Jaws started dropping around the room.
The tension was incredibly ugly. It was one of the worst meetings I’ve ever been to. Later in the roll call, someone said he’d be for the bill if we had better negotiation for drug prices. Than leadership said that was in the bill. Then someone yelled out, “how would we know?” Nobody had seen anything!
Now that the bill is out, negotiation for better prices is in the bill, and in the very next paragraph, they ban the use of formularies, which voids the negotiation. That’s why CBO scores it at 0. If you look at substance, is negotiation in the bill? I think it’s still not in the bill. This is one of the thousand provisions where you had to scratch your head and ask who were we trying to fool here? It sounds to me like Billy Tauzin won that one.
November 9, 2009; 12:49 PM ET
Categories: Health Reform , Interviews
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