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Newsweek’s Howard Fineman on the status of Obamacare

Thursday, March 18, 2010
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HH: To bring us up to speed on where it is, we are joined by Newsweek’s Howard Fineman. Hello, Howard, how are you?

HF: Hi, Hugh, good. How are you?

HH: What do you think? Is it going to pass?

HF: I don’t know. Boy, it’s 50…I’ve got to say, it’s 50-50. I would say that if the President is willing to stake his entire presidency, especially in the first year, year and a half on this, if the Democrats, the party in power, have as big a majority as they do, if Nancy Pelosi is as good a vote counter as she’s been, if the Democrats are willing to play the kind of hardball they’re playing, they should be able to get it. But it’s very, very close. I noticed with some interest that Jason Altmire, the Democrat, moderate Democrat from my home area in Western Pennsylvania, is basically saying that his people in Western PA, and it’s the area north of Pittsburgh, and I know the area well, are telling him they just don’t want it. They just do not want it. And with each passing day, they’re saying that more emphatically. So for every Dennis Kucinich that you get, you get a Jason Altmire saying it doesn’t look like I’m going to do it. So I think it’s very, very close. I think it’s within a few, I think it’s within, you know, three or four votes.

HH: You know, Howard, I have been focusing on Jason Altmire today as well, and on his challenger, Mary Beth Buchanan, former United States Attorney in that district. And you lived there. I lived right across the state line from there. And it is really not liberal land.

HF: No, it’s not.

HH: It’s pretty conservative.

HF: It is. That’s true. That’s true, and you have to take that into account as you do the calculations on this. But it seems to me that if there were some switchable ones on the first no vote, okay, and I went over this pretty carefully, I wrote a web piece about it last week on the arithmetic of it, Altmire’s one of the ones that I think that they had to hope they might be able to flip, and, by the way, that President Obama has spent an enormous amount of time courting, both with visits to Western Pennsylvania, and even the visit to Ohio, you know, where, which was designed for Dennis Kucinich, probably had a slop over effect in the media markets in Northwestern Pennsylvania.

HH: Now Howard, do you think that a Congressman like Altmire, who’s been there three and a half years, would cast a vote that would almost certainly end his career and go against the wishes of his constituents just because the President called him a half dozen times? I mean, he’s a sharp, young guy. He looks like it. It’s political suicide. Do you think…or does he want to be Jack Murtha and stay there for twenty terms?

HF: Well, I don’t know. I think it’s, the calculus is probably slightly more complicated than that. Maybe not. Maybe he’s looking at certain doom if he votes for it. On the other hand, he’s also got to look maybe a little farther down the road, because I think as you know, it’s always dangerous to assume that just because a president’s party gets clobbered in the mid-terms, it doesn’t necessarily mean that president is going to lose in the following, you know, presidential year. And you know, Pennsylvania’s pretty…it was trending conservative, I think, but it’s still a blue state. I don’t know. I don’t know. I think it’s maybe slightly more complicated than that, but it doesn’t sound like they’re going to get Altmire, so we should probably move on.

HH: Now let’s talk about what I’m calling the kangaroo Congress move, which is this Slaughter solution, and whether or not it hurts the Democrats more than it helps them to have been caught in the, sort of the middle of the intersection…

HF: Yeah.

HH: …stopped with everyone looking at them, saying this is just not right, Howard. What do you think?

HF: Well, I guess the web, Hugh, the web is designed for arguing it round and flat, and I did both things yesterday. Yesterday morning, I said that watching Pelosi, on Newsweek.com, I said that watching Pelosi, Reid and Emmanuel maneuver on this is like watching a three card monte game in Times Square. But I also wrote that both Republicans and Democrats over the last decade have used this deemed as passed maneuver, although I think the counterargument to that is it’s never been used on something this momentous. And I do think that the message that’s getting out there, that the Democrats are afraid…it’s ironic, because the President kept pounding the table and demanding an up or down vote, you know, all that rhetoric in the last few weeks about demanding an up or down vote. But it doesn’t look like the wavering Democrats want to actually have an up or down vote on that bill. And that hurts them. That message hurts them.

HH: When it was tested in the courts before in the Public Citizen case in the District of Columbia Circuit, it was on minor details between the Senate and the House bill…

HF: Right.

HH: …not on major alterations like the Cornhusker Kickback and the Louisiana Purchase, and…

HF: Well, even bigger things than that, Hugh. I mean, that black box, this reconciliation bill is going to have a whole lot more stuff in it, which is one reason why it’s taking the Congressional Budget Office so long to figure out how much it theoretically costs.

HH: So have you seen anything like this? You’ve been covering Washington politics for a long time, Howard Fineman. Have you seen anything like this?

HF: Well, I’ll tell you what, Hugh. I’m so old that I remember when I came into this movie, when I came into this movie with the Reagan revolution. You know, the Gramm…the big Reagan budget and tax bill, the big…and it, too, was a reconciliation bill back in, I think, ’81, at the dawn of the Reagan era, which sort of set the whole Reagan era in motion in terms of fiscal policy, that was, for its time, every bit as crazy and hair-raising as this. You probably don’t remember this, but I’m pretty sure this is what happened. They took the entire bill, which is like 700 pages or something, which for its era was considered a monstrosity, they fed it through a Xerox machine to get the final version that they would vote on. And there were phone numbers, and there was a phone number for a pizza delivery store written in the margins of the bill, and the phone number for some secretary in somebody’s office written in another part of the margin of the bill. I mean, and that was close, and it was crazy. So I guess you could say that sometimes, when these big, and let’s say philosophical shifts are involved, when there are a hundred moving parts, or a thousand moving parts, and this one, by the way, is much bigger than that even was, that these kinds of things do happen from time to time. I think this one, the nakedness of it in the way it’s going now with the rule, the torturous nature of what they’re trying to do with the rules, I really haven’t seen anything like that on something this big.

HH: Now I got to town in ’83, and cannot remember anything during my time in the Reagan or subsequent – anything remotely like this. But I do know that the Republicans, they held the rule open once for like five hours.

HF: Yeah, right. That was a fifteen minute vote that lasted five hours.

HH: Yeah, stuff like that I can remember.

HF: Well, and Tom Delay was rebuked…I mean, on some things, Delay has his wrists slapped. You know, Delay was, Tom Delay, the former Republican leader, was no slouch at doing some of this stuff. And you know, the Republicans have done some things, not like this, but they’ve done some things that have been quite controversial. Both sides have. But I guess the point is, I think you’ve got a point in saying that I don’t remember when something this fundamental to a presidency, that’s this big of a philosophical and spending thing and so forth, has had this much, shall we say, fancy parliamentary maneuvering associated with it. I don’t remember that.

HH: I’ve also not remembered when it gets down to the weeds, like John Boccieri is, now he is from Northeastern Ohio. He’s on my side of the border. He’s a first-termer, or maybe he’s in his, no, he’s a first-termer, Ralph Regula seat. He’s doomed if he votes for this thing. I had Renacci on yesterday, the mayor from his district who’s running against him. He’s raising all sorts of money. You know, that seat’s like a ten point Republican seat.

HF: Well, to me, Hugh, the interesting question is why. And leaving aside all the lobbying and the missteps, and you know, the bad strategy and all that, what’s going on here? And I think it is that Barack Obama misjudged the amount of faith that people really want to put in government at this point. I think it’s that simple. I think that the combination of the stimulus package, you know, the throw the mud against the wall theory of the stimulus package, plus the bailouts of the banks, plus some of the other spending bills, plus all the big, sort of sweeping theoretical pronouncements that are being made by places like the Federal Communications Commission, or this agency or that agency, or Education Department or whatever, I think as angry as people are at corporate America, and they are, it’s not a zero sum game. It doesn’t mean that just because they’re angry at corporate America, they’re ready to trust federal America. It just doesn’t work that way, and I don’t think Obama understands that.

HH: I think you’re right. I have Governor Romney on yesterday comparing Massachusetts with the federal system, and he pointed out a number of the differences. But while they have a mandate, they didn’t raise taxes at all, only cost about 2% of their state budget. And I think people are afraid against these backdrops, Howard Fineman, of you know, a $1.6 trillion dollar budget, that if Massachusetts cost more than they thought, just imagine what this thing’s going to cost.

HF: Yeah, I think people are worried about it. I think they’re undoubtedly worried about rising health care costs. That’s true. But they don’t trust, they don’t trust a government-run solution for it. They didn’t buy the public option, and they’re very, very dubious about this. So if the President gets it, and it’s going to be up in the air until the last minute, he’s just going to get it by, literally by one vote. Because as you know, Hugh, what’ll happen is if they do get to 216, then the bidding war will begin as to who’s allowed to get off the hook, and of course, everybody’s going to want to get off the hook on the Democratic side.

HH: Right.

HF: And Pelosi will be lucky if it gets to that point.

HH: Congressman Stupak, last question, Howard Fineman, on Fox today, said he had a meeting yesterday with 13 Democrats who are pro-life, not one of them is being peeled away, and that he suspects that Nancy Pelosi is saying I’ve got the votes, because he’s got a lot of people saying if I’m the last vote, I’ll be there for you. But she hasn’t gotten close. Your assessment of Bart Stupak?

HF: I think Stupak will never vote yes, but I think some of his 13 probably will.

HH: Howard Fineman of Newsweek, thank you so much. www.newsweek.com to get the last bit of Howard’s writing on this. Follow it closely.

End of interview.

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