Transcript: Sens. Chris Dodd and Lindsey Graham

dodd graham

ABC'S "THIS WEEK WITH GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS"

JUNE 21, 2009

SPEAKERS: GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, HOST

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER J. DODD, D-CONN.

[*] STEPHANOPOULOS: Hello and welcome to "This Week."

Iran on edge.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The world is watching.

(UNKNOWN): We are witnessing a Tiananmen in Tehran.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHANOPOULOS: On Capitol Hill, health care stalls.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(UNKNOWN): This is Hillary-care plus.

(UNKNOWN): We've come too far for our efforts to fail over disagreement on one single issue.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHANOPOULOS: Is Obama's top priority in peril? Should the U.S. take a harder line on Iran? Questions this morning for two key senators, Democrat Chris Dodd and Republican Lindsey Graham, a "This Week" debate.

Then...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: This is when the criticism gets louder. This is where the pundits grow impatient.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHANOPOULOS: The president's polls fall to earth. Is he getting a free ride from the press? That and all the week's politics on our roundtable, with George Will, Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts, Robert Reich of the American Prospect, and just back from Tehran, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller.

And as always, the Sunday Funnies.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID LETTERMAN, TALK SHOW HOST: They're recounting the ballots cast in the Iranian election, and today they found 14 more votes for Norm Coleman.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHANOPOULOS: And happy Father's Day to all the dads out there.

It was a momentous week here in Washington, with major developments on health care and major tension with Iran, especially yesterday, when the president held several meetings on the violence there. Hard information was hard to come by, but Saturday was clearly the most deadly day yet. As many as 20 protesters killed in clashes with state security forces, and the opposition leader, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, reportedly told his supporters that he was prepared for martyrdom.

In response, President Obama issued his strongest condemnation yet. He called on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people, and he quoted Martin Luther King. "The arc of the moral universe is long and it bends towards justice. I believe that, the international community believes that, and right now we're bearing witness to the Iranian people's belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness."

For more on this debate, let me bring in two key senators. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. Also, Democrat Chris Dodd of Connecticut. Gentlemen, welcome to both of you.

And Senator Graham, let me begin with you. Your friend Senator John McCain and many other Republicans were pressuring the president all week long to take a harder line on Iran. Did he get it right with that statement yesterday?

GRAHAM: He's certainly moving in the right direction, but our point is that there is a monumental event going on in Iran, and you know, the president of the United States is supposed to lead the free world, not follow it. Other nations have been more outspoken, so I hope that we'll hear more of this, because the young men and women taking the streets in Tehran need our support. The signs are in English. They are basically asking for us to speak up on their behalf.

And I appreciate what the president said yesterday, but he's been timid and passive more than I would like, and I hope he will continue to speak truth to power.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But Senator, you know what the White House has said in response. They say that they don't want to become the players in this fight and actually make the protesters seem like they're tools of the United States. Henry Kissinger agrees with the White House.

GRAHAM: Well, these people are not tools of anyone. They're the ones getting killed. No one in America is getting killed over there.

Any time America stands up for freedom, we're better off. When we try to prop up dictators or remain silent, it comes back to bite us.

You know, Ronald Reagan spoke in front of the Berlin wall, he said tear it down, he's ready to negotiate. When he was silent on the 1986 election in the Philippines, said there was fraud on both sides, that hurt the cause, so I would -- I would hope that the president would speak truth to power.

This regime is corrupt. It has blood on its hands in Iran. They've killed Americans in Iraq, innocent Iraqi people; now they're killing their own people. Stand up with the protesters. That's not meddling. That's doing the right thing.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Dodd, has the president been timid and passive, as Senator Graham says?

DODD: No, not at all. He's the president of the United States. He's not a member of the Senate or a columnist. He's got a very delicate path to walk here. I think he's been strong. You don't want to become -- you don't want to take ownership of this. The worst thing we could do at this moment for these reformers, these protesters, these courageous people in Tehran, is allow the government there to claim that this is a U.S.-led opposition, a U.S.-led demonstration.

This is 1979 in many ways all over again, and these are remarkable people doing remarkable things. The president has spoken out strongly. We adopted unanimously I think the other day, Lindsey, a resolution on the floor of the Senate in support of what the protesters are trying to achieve. I think it's clear to them that we stand as a nation behind their efforts. And the president I think is handling this job as well as any president could, and that is speaking out against the unjust activities that are occurring, the violence that's being brought against these protesters, the deaths that are occurring. That's exactly the right message for an American president, but not taking ownership of this.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But, Senator Dodd, going forward, how does the president pursue his policy of engagement after we've seen what this regime is willing to do to its own people? You have some suggesting, like the House Republican leader, John Boehner, that we should go straight to tougher sanctions, stop all gasoline sales to the Iranians now?

DODD: Well, obviously this is a -- as someone pointed out the other day, this government is very fragile in Iran right now, and obviously we're deeply concerned about the security of our country and our allies with the possibility of, of course, developing and having a nuclear arsenal.

And that's a tremendously high priority for us. And so you want to put the pressure on we have collectively with the international community. I suspect after the events of the last week, you'll see more of that, additional pressure being put on it to make sure that we not only see that these protesters and demonstrators who are seeking justice in their country will achieve that goal, but also that the near-term issue of dealing with nuclear weapons is also going to be dealt with.

That's a very delicate path of the president to walk.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So would you go along with tightening the noose economically, stopping gasoline sales?

DODD: I would, but I would want to be collective with that. I think doing it alone on ourselves may not achieve the desired results. I think the effort to get the international community, as we have been in getting more and more support for that, makes a lot of sense, if your true goal is to stop the Iranians from developing the nuclear weapons.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Graham?

GRAHAM: Well, my goal is to make sure that we do not lose this moment in history. If we could get the Iranian people to speak out -- stand behind them as they speak out. They want more freedom. They want to be part of the international community. They do not like the way they're being lead, the way they're being isolated by the saber- rattling from Ahmadinejad. The supreme leader is losing credibility with their own people.

The regime, to me for the moment, is more important than negotiating about nuclear weapons. If we could empower the Iranian people by giving them the moral support they deserve, then -- and do sanctions and stand tough against this regime.

It's one thing for me to talk here in South Carolina about Iran, the people who are out in the streets in Tehran are losing their lives are the ones that I admire. And we've got a chance here to stand by these folks and give them the moral support we need.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So just to be clear, you're for regime change? Just to be clear, you're for regime change?

GRAHAM: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Are you, Senator Dodd?

DODD: I couldn't hear the question.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Are you for regime change now in Iran?

DODD: Well, I would love to see a different regime in Iran. Who wouldn't? My lord, what's going on there for the last 30 years has been a disaster for the people in Iran. Certainly would like to see change there.

But how you get there -- and this -- I think the point here, we don't want to try to drive more of a wedge here, I think Lindsey and I agree without any question here what we'd like to see occur.

The question is, should the United States take ownership of this revolution? I think we do great damage to the effort if it appears this is a U.S.-led effort. Then I think we do damage to the people -- that's exactly what Ahmadinejad would like. It's what the supreme leader would like to say, this is a U.S.-led opposition, not a homegrown, organic revolution being led by Iranians.

If we lose that argument, then these reformers, these people who are courageous today could have a major setback, in my view.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me switch to the situation here at home, especially on health care. Senator Dodd, you're chairing the Health Committee in the Senate in the absence of Senator Kennedy.

It got pretty heated there on Friday afternoon. Let me show our viewers a little bit of your exchange with Senator McCain.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZ. I'll tell you, these hours have been a waste of time when we don't know what the bill costs and we don't know what the employer mandates are, and we don't know what the government option.

DODD: We can't run the numbers on it until we actually craft the language and give him something. So they...

MCCAIN: They've run the numbers...

(CROSSTALK) DODD: ... various ideas.

MCCAIN: ... and it's a trillion dollars, one-third insured.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHANOPOULOS: Now, Senator Dodd, that was only a partial report by the Congressional Budget Office, but they did find it would cost a trillion dollars and you'd cover one-third of the uninsured, 16 million uninsured. Is that too high a price to pay?

DODD: Well, George, we're not done with this at all. If this were easy, it would have been done decades ago. Sixty years, the effort has been made to have a national health care program in this country.

But it's almost 50 million uninsured, and those who are insured paying prices they can't afford and going to escalate every day, 14,000 people a day lose their health insurance in the United States, 14,000 a day.

This is very hard. This is very difficult. But we're going to stick with it. We actually had a pretty good week in many ways. We did a lot of work, a lot of amendments were agreed to.

You've had AARP come out in favor of a House plan. You had the pharmaceutical companies look like they're going to reduce some $50 billion in cost. We're moving ahead. Max Baucus is moving ahead.

This is a difficult road, I'll be the first to admit it. Anyone who has been involved in this issue over the years will tell you that. But we're going to get there, in my view.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But, Senator, bottom line, how much is this going to cost and how many people are going to get covered? Because you talked about Senator Baucus, the Senate Finance Committee, they said to get to something close to universal coverage, it would be $1.6 trillion.

A lot of people had sticker shock over that as well.

DODD: Yes. We all do. And, look, we've got to make this accessible. We've got to make it a quality program. We've got to make sure we can bring down these costs. We can't consume 35 cents in every dollar as we could in the next 10 or 15, 20 years of our gross domestic product if we don't change the system, fundamentally alter it.

DODD: That's what the effort here is all about. We're basically saying look, if you like what you have, you can keep it. If you want, you choose your doctor, your hospital, your insurance coverage. That's fine, there's no one objecting to that whatsoever. But to focus on prevention, on quality, to dis-incentive a system where it rewards those who show up at hospitals and doctors offices instead of trying to keep people healthy. That's the effort we're involved in here.

And it's not say to do this, but we're working at it. The numbers come back. We've got to obviously have better numbers than the ones we've seen. And we need to cover a lot more people than we're seeing. That's what we've been working on all weekend, in fact. And we'll work on it again this week.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me bring it Senator Graham in on this. Republicans seem to be digging in, Senator Graham, on a couple of big issues. On the issues of taxes to pay for health care, on the issue of a public health insurance plan. But let me show you this "New York Times" poll that's just out this morning showing 72 percent, 72 percent of the public supports a government health insurance plan and 57 percent of the public is willing to pay more taxes for universal health care. They seem to be ready for the kind of change that Republicans are fighting.

GRAHAM: Well, it's just not Republicans, George. The reason you're not going to have a government run health care pass the Senate is because it would be devastating for this country. The last thing in the world I think Democrats and Republicans are going to do at the end of the day is create a government run health care system where you've got a bureaucrat standing in between the patient and the doctor. We've tried this model -- people have tried this model in other countries. The first thing that happens -- you have to wait for your care. And in socialized health care models, people have to wait longer to get care and the government begins to cut back on what's available because of the cost explosion.

The CBO estimates were a death blow to a government run health care plan. The finance committee has abandoned that. We do need to deal with inflation in health care, private and public inflation, but we're not going to go down to the government owning health care road in America and I think that's the story of this week. There's been a bipartisan rejection of that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, you call it a death blow. Let me just press that point. Are you saying now that Republicans just as we saw in the stimulus where I think only three Republicans voted for the president's stimulus package -- if there's a government run health insurance plan, are Republicans going to vote on that against this package?

GRAHAM: I don't think it's just going to be Republicans. You've got Senator Conrad talking about a co-op. You've got other Democrats running away from the government-run health care where the bureaucrat stands between the doctor and the patient. I think this idea is unnerving to the members of the Senate and will be to the public when they understand what it means, that you'll wait longer to get treated and you'll get health care the government decides for you, not that of your doctor. So yes, I think this idea needs to go away and replace it with something maybe like Kent Conrad's proposal.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Now Senator Dodd, I think that Senator Graham talked about the public there. We just saw that hole. But his read of the Senate seems pretty accurate right now. You have not only Republicans but several of your Democratic colleagues, including the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Baucus saying the public option isn't going to fly in their committee. They want something bipartisan and that can't include this public health insurance option.

DODD: Well, again, I'm delighted to hear Lindsey talk about the possibility of having something like a co-op and non-profits. I happen to support a public option, I don't think you can bring down costs without it. If there isn't some competition out there to drive down the overall cost -- costs have gone up 86 percent since '96, 1996. Forty-five percent might stay the loan, increase in health care cost. The American average working family can't afford this. A family of four now it's $12,000. We're being told in 20 years, it could be half the gross income of a family spent on health care premiums. That is just unacceptable.

Now how we get those costs down -- use a lot of these buzz words. No one I know is for socialized medicine. We're going to develop a U.S. plan, not a Canadian or a U.K. plan, one that meets our needs in our country. It's designed for Americans, by Americans, that isn't socialized medicine. But you've got to drive down these costs. We need quality, accessible health care in bringing down those costs are absolutely critical, or we're going to bankrupt the country. It's unsustainable. That's why we're at the table.

STEPHANOPOULOS: OK gentlemen, we're going to have you both back if this makes it through the process this summer, but Senator Dodd, before I let you go, real quickly, I see that Senator Kennedy is doing an ad for you up in Connecticut, starting today. How is he doing?

DODD: He is doing pretty well. I talked to him the other day, had a good conversation with him. In fact, the day we started the mark up in the health committee on health care, he's been a champion of that for four decades. And he stays very engaged, very involved, knows everything that's going on. And is anxious to be back, and no one's more anxious for him to come back than I am.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I'll bet. Senators, thank you both very much.

GRAHAM: Thank you very much.

STEPHANOPOULOS: We're going to go straight to the roundtable.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And as everyone takes their seats, take a look at these tipping points from history. Is Iran now facing a similar moment?

(VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHANOPOULOS: And with that, let me bring in the roundtable. I'm joined, as always, by George Will. The executive editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller, just back from a week in Iran. Bob Reich of the American Prospect in Berkeley. Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts.

And George, let's start with that question suggested by those clips right there. Is this the tipping point in Iran?

GEORGE WILL, ABC NEWS: It will never be the same there. And the legitimacy of the regime, such as it was, is much diminished.

Whether or not that's a good thing is another matter. The president is being roundly criticized for insufficient rhetorical support for what's going on over there. It seems to me foolish criticism. The people on the streets know full well what the American attitude toward that regime is, and they don't need that reinforced.

Furthermore, there's an American memory of encouraging things like the Hungarian revolution in 1956, with rhetoric about rolling back communism. We had balloons flown in and dropped medals with the Statue of Liberty on it and leaflets. Came to crunch, there was nothing we could do about it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And, Bill, you, as I said, spent much of the last week in Iran. Could you get a sense from the people you were able to talk to how much they wanted the United States involved? First of all. And also, give us some sense of the scale of the protests. You know, there's this debate here over how much of the election was stolen, over how many people these opposition protesters actually represent.

BILL KELLER, NEW YORK TIMES EXEC. EDITOR: Well, Iranian public opinion is a hard thing to measure, but it's not just Tehran and it's not just a sort of effete group of university students and professors. It's definitely more widespread than that.

The thing you would see over and over again as you sort of round a corner, and there would be a group of young men, mostly, throwing rocks or wheeling a kind of burning dumpster out into traffic, and then the riot police would come after them.

And then came the really interesting part, which is all of the traffic backed up for blocks and blocks in all directions, would start honking in support of the guys throwing the rocks, not in support of the police.

You had working-class families waving V's out the window, little kids with green ribbons tied around their fingers. So the support is clearly -- you know, Ahmadinejad talks about the unity of the Islamic people of Iran, but the people clearly are a lot more complicated than that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And your columnist, Roger Cohen, writes this morning about even some of the security forces not seeming all that eager to carry out their responsibilities.

KELLER: I think that's right, although they have these Basiji, who are kind of the authorized militia, who are utterly ruthless. I got to see them in action a little bit in Esfahan, where I went for a day, a place that doesn't really get any press coverage, and it was a kind of a glimpse of what we might be in store for in Tehran if the window closes.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And, Cokie, we've also seen a remarkable aspect of this velvet revolution, if it is one, is the power of the women in Iran.

COKIE ROBERTS, ABC NEWS: Right. And being very brave. I mean, when you talk about this special force, they've been vicious against the women, just in everyday life, much less in this situation. And so, to have women being brave out there and saying, you know, this is the change that we have to see -- now, you know, Iran's interesting this way because there is a huge class of highly-educated women, who, many of them who have left, and a lot of people here are supporting this revolution because of -- or if it is a revolution -- because of the role of women and the oppression of women.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And, Sam, you covered Ronald Reagan. Of course, we heard Senator Graham talking about Ronald Reagan's tardy response to what was happening in the Philippines, when Marcos tried to steal an election, but then that very forceful speech he gave at the Berlin wall. Is President Obama being Reagan-esque enough?

SAM DONALDSON, ABC NEWS: I think President Obama is about on the right track.

You know, the difference between the illustrations that you showed of revolution in our times and Iran is they were secular revolutions. Iran is not. When you talk about regime change, or you're talking about, well, Mousavi, we think the election was stolen, rather than Ahmadinejad, or you are talking about Khamenei and the mullahs -- that's a Muslim country. And I think for the foreseeable future, certainly in our lifetime, it's going to remain that.

So for us to say somehow we can help change it in a democratic sense, is not possible. ROBERTS: But he has to stay on top of it a little better, I think. Because Khamenei was, I think, undermined himself.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The supreme leader of Iran.

ROBERTS: The supreme leader, the ayatollah, undermined himself, in the speech that he gave on Friday supporting Ahmadinejad. And the fact that people continued to protest after that speech is very telling. And I think, you know, the president saying that there really wasn't that much difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, is, you know -- might have been true then, but it might be different now, because the people do have an effect, and -- the people in the streets.

And I'd be very curious, but you didn't answer the second part of George's question, about what are the people saying about America's role? Are they saying we should be doing more?

KELLER: Well, first of all, there was clearly an Obama influence in the campaign, at least in the trappings, the symbols and so on.

STEPHANOPOULOS: "Yes, we can," was the slogan of Ahmadinejad, right?

KELLER: Right, and change. Change was all over the place.

KELLER: And yes, they would -- people were crying out for a little bit of moral support. Where that leads and what they would want beyond just attention and recognition, I think they feel that the outside world acknowledging what's going on there and not letting it slip from our view, empowers them. More than that, I didn't hear anybody ask it.

REICH: I think regardless of what happens there, George, even if the powers of oppression are victorious, Iran is not going to be the same. And there is going to be an opening for the United States, that was not there before. I was very interested that the supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, actually last Friday, made Britain the enemy, not the United States.

ROBERTS: Right.

REICH: That was telling. Also, I don't think any of us should underestimate the power of Obama's Cairo speech a couple of weeks ago. It had an electrifying effect across the Middle East, particularly among the young.

DONALDSON: That speech, which set a new tone. We're going to have to deal with whatever regime emerges in Iran. If we say Mousavi would be better, I think that's probably true, for Iran. But we're going to have to deal with Ahmadinejad, if, in fact, he remains president. And I think to say that somehow, we've got to crack down, in the George W. Bush-type style is wrong.

WILL: The reason we care about Iran is that they have a decades- long program, nearing fruition, of achieving a nuclear weapon. And there's no reasons to believe that Mr. Mousavi is opposed to a nuclear Iran and lots of reasons to believe that he's for it.

DONALDSON: And that's why we have to deal with whoever emerges.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And the question would be, Bill, let me bring this back to you, because there's two other things going on. One is a power struggle, not only in the streets, but also at the top levels of Iranian society. You have the former president, Rafsanjani, probably the wealthiest man in Iran, seemingly to take on the supreme leader here. And we find out just this morning that his daughter has been detained. How much power does Rafsanjani have to actually -- does he actually have the power to pose some kind a real threat to Khamenei?

KELLER: Hard to say. Probably not very much. I mean, what's really happened here, I think, and I'm no expert on Iranian politics, but it's a system that has sort of two pillars. One of them, the dominant one, is the clergy. And it's sort of unanimity behind the rule of the Koran.

And the other is this Democratic, secondary leg, which is supposed to give some legitimacy to the whole thing and create an outlet for public pressure. Both of those pillars have been very badly shaken. They have seen that the power structure is now a bunch of veterans of the revolution, squabbling among themselves for power. And even the ayatollah has been tainted by that. And of course the elections haven't proven to be much of an outlet at all.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And that can make it very difficult for the United States to deal with, whoever comes out of this.

ROBERTS: And that is a serious problem and obviously that's something the president is trying to walk a fine line on. But he might be walking too fine a line. You know, the thing that is so interesting to all of us, of course, is how even in a very repressive regime, you can't repress the news in the modern world, that we are able to see on YouTube. YouTube is the main source of information.

REICH: That's really an interesting question here because China has managed to repress all of this technology. And it's kind of a race in many of these countries between the technology of opening a democracy, versus the technology of oppression.

STEPHANOPOULOS: That's true but the problem we've seen over the weekend is the government has been able to clamp down a lot more as the week has gone on. We're going to take a break right now right now. Come back, talk about health care and a lot of politics of the week.

And later, "The Sunday Funnies."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIMMY FALLON, TALK SHOW HOST: I wouldn't mind a second opinion from the other supreme leaders. Burrito supreme, Taco supreme and of course, Diana Ross.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEPHANOPOULOS: We will be right back with "The Roundtable" and "The Sunday Funnies."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: President Obama's love affair with the mainstream media continues.

OBAMA: I was up tossing and turning, trying to figure out exactly what to say. Finally, when I couldn't get back to sleep, I rolled over and asked Brian Williams what he thought.

MARK HALPERIN, TIME MAGAZINE: Barack Obama, with the help of the press corps who really likes that side of him, is able to pull it off. I think he's untouchable on things like this.

OBAMA: Why bother hanging out with celebrities when I can spend time with the people who made me one?

BILL MAHER, TALK SHOW HOST: You don't have to be on television every minute of every day. You're the president, not a rerun of "Law & Order."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHANOPOULOS: Is the president getting a free ride from the media? We're going to look at that question in just a little bit. But first, let me bring our "Roundtable" back in. I'm joined again by George Will, Bill Keller of "The New York Times," Robert Reich of "The American Prospect," Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts.

I do want to get to that. But first, George, let's pick up on the health care debate we just had with the senators. This was a fairly rough week for the president on health care reform. You had the Congressional Budget Office score the two, main plans, saying they would cost $1 trillion and $1.6 trillion. The House wouldn't even put a price tag on there. Now the White House comes back and says no, we're developing consensus on cost control and getting some progress on prescription drugs. How much trouble -- how much water did the president's plan take this week?

WILL: Some. But it's not floundering yet. There has been a feeling that they want to rush this through as fast as possible, because many people believe that what sank Hillary-care in the early '90s was that it took so long. And the more people looked at it, the less they liked it. Now the initial response of many people, including I suspect Robert Reich over here, is when the CBO numbers were unattractive, they said, well, OK, we'll just get numbers from OMB.

STEPHANOPOULOS: That ain't going to work.

WILL: No, of course, not, from the Obama White House. But it turns out, it's very expensive. I think the long and the short of this is, what this is going to do is drive tax reform. Sooner or later we're going to see there's absolutely no way you can do this with the current revenue system.

REICH: I think that's probably right. The OMB numbers -- in this town, the green eye shades really do rule and people don't understand that. But those numbers did not take account of what I think is the linchpin of the entire plan, which is the public option. If there's a public option there to actually discipline the private insurers, to negotiate with drug prices that are lower, the entire cost structure --

WILL: Bob, there's a --

REICH: Discipline. The private insurers have actually run our entire health care system. So, if you try to make projections of health care costs without a public option in your projections, those costs are going to be much, much higher than otherwise.

I agree with you, George. There's going to have to be some talk about -- serious talk about where the taxes are going to come from. But not a trillion dollars worth.

STEPHANOPOULOS: That's the other problem, Cokie, on the tax side. They can't come to an agreement to how to pay for this. Every committee has a different idea.

ROBERTS: No. And they don't tell us how they do plan to pay for it. The Democrats' plan in the House last week, was just oh, we'll figure that out later. But the president and the people who are pushing for the change, have an opportunity here.

In "The Wall Street Journal" poll last week, about a third said they were for the president's plan. About a third said they were against it and about a third said they had no opinion.

So, that's basically a blank slate that you can write on. But one of the things that the Republicans have a problem with here, when they say, as we just heard Senator Graham saying over and over, you don't want a bureaucrat standing between you and your doctor. What people now have is an insurance agent standing between them and their doctor and everybody knows that. That is not some myth anymore, that we used to not understand how important insurance companies were. Now, your doctor tells you all the time how important they are.

STEPHANOPOULOS: That's an important point because I think the success, Sam, of how far the president's going to be able to keep on pushing this, is if he can convince people that what we have now is much worse than what they're going to get.

DONALDSON: Well if we could just lower our health care costs as they increase, by 1.5 percent, we would solve our budgetary problems. Look, the president has to get into this. They're kind of waiting in the sidelines. Next month, he's got to have to make his choices and he's got to them there. They can't write the bill on Capitol Hill. Nancy Pelosi says, without a government option, there will be no bill. You heard Senator Graham this morning, never pass the Senate. He is going to have to put his prestige on the line. Let's get it done now. If you have to use a Wilbur Mills surtax.

STEPHANOPOULOS: What's a Wilbur Mills surtax?

DONALDSON: Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson wanted to pay for the war. Wilbur Mills, before that, the powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee got through a $50 a head for income tax surtax. Let's pay for it. In the long run, we're cheaper and we cover people and we're healthier.

REICH: You know, the worry here is that the president may have -- and the White House staff, may have over learned the lesson of the Clinton health care plan fiasco, which was don't deliver a package to the Hill. Let the Hill take ownership.

And that was true up to a point. But I think that Sam is absolutely right. Right now, the president has to get involved, twist arms. And say, if I don't have "A," "B," and "C," I'm not going to sign this bill.

ROBERTS: Except that there's a great advantage to the investment of time and ownership that members of Congress are placing on this measure because, at some point, if they are -- have done so much work on it, they want to see it completed.

REICH: Yes, Cokie. But we've reached a tipping point. I think the problem is, there's so many different bills up there, there's so many different conceptions of where the money's going to come from, whether there's going to be a mandate, whether there's going to be a public option, what the public option is going to look like, that there's no coherence. The president has got to get in there and give it coherence.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And George, I want to bring this back to you because I think Bob is right in part, about 1994. Here's what I wonder, though.

STEPHANOPOULOS: There was a point in '93, '94, it started out 22 Republican senators for universal health care. As the debate continued over a long period of time, the politics changed. It wouldn't matter what was in the bill at the end. The Republican Party decided they weren't going to go along with this.

It appeared to me this week that you started to see that developing among the Republicans. Cokie's right, that you build up this sense of ownership the more you negotiate, but it seems like the last Republican negotiating now is Chuck Grassley.

WILL: That's right. And they're down to saying it's a $1.6 trillion bill, let's tax root beer. We're going to have a 3-cent tax on sugary sodas. They don't know what to do about the financing of this.

I still believe, Bob, drop your public option, drop the fiction that although we have 103,000 providers of health plans in this country, we need another one, a government program. We have a competitive market in computers without a government computer program, a competitive market in car insurance. Why do we need it here...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: The most popular health care plan in the country is Medicare, and it is a government-provided health care plan.

REICH: In fact, it's a single-payer plan, Medicare.

ROBERTS: Actually, one of my favorite stories about this is John Breaux when he was in the Senate being stopped at an airport by an elderly lady, who said, Senator, whatever you do, don't let the government get its hands on my Medicare!

REICH: This is the biggest fight, and it is really going to be the definitive fight in terms of health care. A public option. Not anything forced on the public, but a public option that keeps insurers honest by actually having the ability and scale to negotiate lower drug prices.

WILL: (inaudible) the idea that government is the lagoon of honesty, that it's going to bring honesty to other people. The fact is...

REICH: George, it's not a matter of honesty in terms of government being honest. It's a matter of competition that creates benchmarks against which the private insurers can measure themselves. Right now...

(CROSSTALK)

DONALDSON: ... poll in the New York Times, not only 72 percent want something done, but they like the government option.

(CROSSTALK)

WILL: Suppose that -- suppose the New York Times question had been, do you favor a government option, if it has, as the Lewin (ph) group suggests, the effect of driving the vast majority of people out of private insurance, into public insurance, to the degree that private insurance disappears in this country?

(CROSSTALK)

DONALDSON: ... and whether the efficacy of it...

(CROSSTALK)

KELLER: The interesting part of that poll was that majority said that they would be willing to take a tax increase to pay for universal health care, I thought.

But both of those, basically, just suggest that Obama has won the war so far at the bumper sticker level, you know, the slogan level. Once you get down to the, you know...

STEPHANOPOULOS: The actual taxes that are going to be increased.

KELLER: The actual taxes that are going to be increased and on whom. And once you get down to the actual makeup of a government program, it's not just that things start to come apart in Congress. I think public opinion starts to fracture.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: Public opinion on the question of the deficit. I mean, in all of these polls that have come out in the last -- in the last week, people are saying that they're very concerned about the deficit. They think that he has no coherent plan for dealing with the deficit.

(CROSSTALK)

STEPHANOPOULOS: ... the New York times poll, it shows -- I'll bring it up in a second. Go ahead.

(CROSSTALK)

REICH: I'm sorry. The Republican plan, and it is the AMA plan, the Chamber of Commerce plan, it's the same plan they've used since 1944. Franklin D. Roosevelt came up with the first idea for national insurance. They said, no, it's socialized medicine. You're going to take over government. You're going to interfere with the patient/doctor relationship and you are also going to bust the bank. This is the same... (CROSSTALK)

STEPHANOPOULOS: It is the same argument. But here's the I guess the problem...

REICH: It's not true.

STEPHANOPOULOS: ... because you write about this. I know a lot of Democrats are banking on this, but I'm just not sure it's possible. They say they look at this and say, wait a sec, you know, we don't really need the Republicans. We can alter these budget rules and put it through on this so-called reconciliation measure that would allow you to get -- with the majority vote. The more you look at that, the less viable that plan actually is, both for political reasons, because it's not going to have political durability, but also a lot of the experts say you put the plan through that process, and it's going to be full of holes.

ROBERTS: And at that point -- at that point, the president absolutely...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: ... owns the deficit. You know, at this moment, Americans are still blaming George Bush for the deficit, at least according to the Wall Street Journal poll. But if the Democrats do this all by themselves, then at that point, the deficit becomes the Democrats'.

DONALDSON: If this president loses this health care fight and we emerge with practically nothing, the blood in the water is going to be terrific. The loss of powers and everything else.

(CROSSTALK)

REICH: It's very important to keep the threat of the 51-vote reconciliation measure out there. Whether it's actually used or not is another issue.

But, Cokie, on the deficit, there's so much demagoguery going on right now.

REICH: We are in an economy in which people don't have money to keep the economy going. Consumers aren't. Businesses are not going to invest as long as there aren't customers. Exports markets are drying up because it's a global recession or worse. And so, government has got to run deficits. This is Keynesian 101.

(CROSSTALK)

STEPHANOPOULOS: But let me bring in...

ROBERTS: I'm just saying what the public opinion is on it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And let me bring that back in, because it's your New York Times poll, again, Bill Keller. We asked a couple of questions -- you asked a couple of questions. Number one, has President Obama made the economy better? Two to one, 32 to 15 percent say, yes, his policies made the economy better.

But then you get to that question Cokie was talking about. Does Obama have a clear plan on the deficit? Two to one, the other way. No clear plan to deal with it...

(CROSSTALK)

KELLER: What both of those answers tell you...

ROBERTS: Even about making the economy better is down from the last New York Times.

STEPHANOPOULOS: From where it was before.

KELLER: What both of those answers tell you is that Obama has come to own the economy. At the point when he can keep saying over and over again, that he inherited all of these problems, although that's true, that's the point -- he has reached the point of diminishing returns there. People now think it's his economy.

(CROSSTALK)

DONALDSON: And that's just another reason why he needs to win on the health care plan. Because they do have to have something that not only covers everyone, but that lowers costs. And the lowering costs will make it easier to reduce the deficit.

WILL: First of all, a majority of Americans -- a large majority of Americans, have insurance. And 80 percent of the insured Americans say their care is good or excellent. Second...

DONALDSON: Forty-six million don't.

WILL: ... there are 70 million -- sorry. There are 70 Senate votes for something like the Bennett-Wyden bill. Liberals get a mandate, you get to boss people around, tell them what to do. And conservatives...

ROBERTS: Which was first proposed by Richard Nixon.

WILL: Precisely. And conservatives get a market. You can do that. All it lacks is the public option, why do they depend so much on the public option?

(CROSSTALK)

REICH: Wait, can I -- can I just get back to your notion that everybody loves the health care system we have?

WILL: That's not my notion.

REICH: Not all -- people like their doctor. But people are holding on by their fingernails as premiums, co-payments, and deductibles all go up. And this is not just the uninsured, this is everybody. This is the middle class of America. They are demanding change.

ROBERTS: Which is one of the reasons why with unemployment rates the way they are now, the safety net that had been placed for unemployed people to try to keep their health care, the so-called COBRA, used to be something that you could afford. And now, no longer can people afford to pay their health care benefits under COBRA.

So it's another part of the impetus to get something done. And I really do think that having it fall apart at this point would be something that would be absolutely devastating.

(CROSSTALK)

DONALDSON: Completely devastating. But saying let's let the insurance companies do it is like saying to Wall Street, all right, let's let you do it. We don't need more regulation. Go and sin no more.

(CROSSTALK)

DONALDSON: The insurance companies have not been able to do it for all of these years.

REICH: One of the most interesting things that Lindsey Graham said this morning was he might be able to support Kent Conrad's compromise on the public option, which is a cooperative. Now personally, I think that's just papier-mache. You know, that is not going to have the bargaining leverage to get costs down. It's sort of a stalking horse, it's a Trojan Horse. But it's interesting that the Republicans are beginning to say, yes, a public option is possible. And that's opening a huge possibility for bargaining.

ROBERTS: And it's interesting that the drug companies are saying, and we'll help you out with the cost of drugs to the tune of about $80 billion. So, there are things that are happening.

STEPHANOPOULOS: That could be, actually, one of the most significant things that happened this week. This was this announcement the president made yesterday where the drug companies are basically going to fill -- which everyone on Medicare knows about this, the doughnut hole.

The prescription drug coverage, when you go from $2,000 to $5,000, all of a sudden you are paying every penny. The pharmaceutical companies are saying they are going to start to fill that. That could bring along support of the AARP across the board for the president's plan, which could make a big difference.

Let me bring something else up here -- uh oh, but first I want to say, George?

WILL: I'm just looking at my Medicare card.

(LAUGHTER)

WILL: I showed it to my doctor. He said, that's wonderful, George, now, we will send your bills to your children.

(LAUGHTER)

WILL: I wonder whether that's the plan we want.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Because he's not going to take Medicare.

DONALDSON: But wait a moment...

WILL: Oh, he will take it.

DONALDSON: ... the Bush tax cuts are being paid for, eventually, by our children. So, where's the outrage there? As Bob Dole would say, where's the outrage, George?

(UNKNOWN): And Social Security is being paid for by our children.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: And we've paid a lot for our children.

(LAUGHTER)

DONALDSON: This is Father's Day. You had a chance to speak in May. REICH: I really think that the details, you know, over the next three or four weeks, the president has to weigh in. And it is over the details, Bill. You know, we are all talking...

DONALDSON: Where the devil is? Yes.

REICH: Yes. And this is going to be made or break -- or broken on the details. This -- what is the definition of public option? Where is the money actually going to come from? Is there going to be a mandate? Or not a mandate? This is where the action is.

(CROSSTALK)

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, the president is going to answer a lot of those questions Wednesday night at this -- in this conversation that Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson are having with him, which has sparked debate on talk radio, about whether the press has been too easy on President Obama.

Here's what -- how the president answered the question in an interview this week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: I've got one television station that is entirely devoted to attacking my administration. I mean, that's a pretty...

(UNKNOWN): I assume you're talking about Fox.

OBAMA: Well, that's a pretty big megaphone. And you'd be hard- pressed if you watched the entire day to find a positive story about me on that front.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHANOPOULOS: You know, George, I've always been struck by how -- and it's not too strong a word -- how obsessed the president and the White House are with Fox News.

WILL: Well, it's the discordant note in an otherwise harmonious chorus, I suppose that's why. But three great love affairs in world history are Abelard and Heloise, Romeo and Juliet, and the American media and this president at the moment.

But this doesn't matter over time. Reality will impinge. If his programs work, he's fine. If it doesn't work, all the adulation of journalists in the world won't help (ph).

STEPHANOPOULOS: And there are some who say actually the president has gotten an abnormal amount of coverage of his personal life, personal style, celebrity coverage.

KELLER: Well, first of all, he has got a fascinating life story, so, of course the personal side gets covered as the first obviously African-American family in the White House. But you know, don't confuse attention with love. I mean, here is a new president who has promulgated one huge ambitious program after another. So, of course, he gets a lot of big, page-one headlines.

But I don't think, at least up until now, it's been unskeptical or uncritical. Read our business columnists on his approach to the deficit, his quasi-nationalization of the auto industry. He's getting examined pretty microscopically.

STEPHANOPOULOS: How is the White House press room doing?

DONALDSON: I think it's doing OK. I mean, they're going to come to life as the public...

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

DONALDSON: He's done a lot of things that you should commend him for. It's not as if he invaded the Bay of Pigs. It's not as if he told the military, don't ask, don't tell, in the first 48 hours. And they told him, no, sir, sit down, please, in the corner. But he has not made huge mistakes. He's made some.

REICH: But a distinction has to be drawn I think between adulation the press might have toward the person -- and we saw this with John F. Kennedy, we saw it with Ronald Reagan -- and the way the coverage is going on the policies.

And I think, Bill, you're absolutely right. With regard to financial regulation, boy, he got a licking on the front page of the New York Times and many other places. This health care debate is being covered quite in a tough way.

DONALDSON: And in the polls, you see that his popularity is diminishing somewhat.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: And particularly on the car question, nobody agrees with him.

(CROSSTALK)

STEPHANOPOULOS: We have only about a minute left. And I don't want to let Bill Keller go without asking you about this amazing story, David Rohde, your reporter in Afghanistan. November 10th of last year, he disappeared. He's held hostage for the last seven months. Escaped...

KELLER: 122 days.

STEPHANOPOULOS: What can you tell us about what happened?

KELLER: From the beginning or the end? I mean, until I debrief David, I can't tell you an awful lot. I can't even tell you what the circumstances were that created this opportunity at the end. But at the end, he was in a compound in northern Waziristan. He and his translator companion hopped over a wall, climbed over a wall, made their way to a Pakistani army base, and he's now free and safe.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And yet -- but no ransom was paid.

KELLER: No ransom was paid.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And it really is amazing that you were able to keep this quiet for so long, over that whole seven months...

(CROSSTALK)

KELLER: Keeping anything quiet for seven months in our...

(CROSSTALK)

STEPHANOPOULOS: It probably helped save his life.

(UNKNOWN): You had to debate that decision, didn't you?

KELLER: We debated it among ourselves over and over and over again.

STEPHANOPOULOS: That's all we have time for today. Thank you all very much.

KELLER: Thank you.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well wishes to David Rohde.

This roundtable is going to continue in the green room, at abcnews.com.

END

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