Transcript: Gibbs


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, HOST: And as the president enjoys the final day of his summer break, we begin with one of his closest confidantes, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

Welcome back, Robert.

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: George, thanks for having me.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And I want to get to health care, but we've got to begin with this news that came in overnight. Van Jones, the president's green jobs czar, at about 12:12 a.m. he resigned, at least that's when we were notified of his resignation. He says he is the victim of a vicious smear campaign, saying people are using lies and distortions to distract and divide the country.

As you know, he has come under fire for past statements and actions. Does the president believe that he is the victim of a vicious smear campaign or does he believe that Jones's actions and words merited resignation?

GIBBS: Well, what Van Jones decided was that the agenda of this president was bigger than any one individual. The president thanks Van Jones for his service in the first eighth months, and helping to coordinate renewable energy jobs that are going to lay the foundation for our future economic growth.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But did the president want him to go?

GIBBS: Well, the president and the CEQ accepted his resignation because Van Jones, as he says in his statement, understood that he was going to get in the way of the president and ultimately this country moving forward on something as important as creating jobs in a clean energy economy.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So the president doesn't endorse in any way the things that Van Jones said before, the things he did?

GIBBS: He doesn't, but he thanks him for his service to the country.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's move on to health care. We're going to see Robert Dole, the former Senate majority leader in a minute, part of our debate. And he said this week that the president, in order to get a fresh start on health care, has to introduce his own specific plan, his own legislation on health care, that's the way to get things started.

Is that what the president is going to do?

GIBBS: Well, George, I think if viewers for ABC and everybody else tune in to hear the president at 8:00 on Wednesday night, they'll leave that speech knowing exactly where the president stands, exactly what he thinks we have to do to get health care done -- health care reform done this year. And he intends to do it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And what he won't accept as well?

GIBBS: Well, we prefer to outline the positive rather than the negative, but I'm sure he will draw some lines in the sand on that…


STEPHANOPOULOS: But how about this question about legislation, because there has been some talk that the president will actually draft legislative language. Is that what is happening right now?

GIBBS: Well, look, we've been looking at legislative language for months. You have now several different proposals in the House and the Senate that have made their way through the committee process.

Obviously the Senate Finance Committee continues to work. So you're going to have ideas that come at this from a couple of different directions. And the president has to take all of those strands and pull them together.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But he will do that and then he will put his ideas on the table?

GIBBS: Well, we're going to certainly, I think -- as I said, people will leave that speech knowing where he stands. And if it takes doing whatever to get health care done, the president is ready, willing, and able to go do that.

We are closer, George, than we have ever been before in insuring that we get some genuine insurance reforms that don't let insurance companies discriminate against pre-existing conditions, that we cut costs for families and small businesses, and provide some accessibility to the tens of millions who don't have health…

STEPHANOPOULOS: You've just identified the relatively non-controversial portions of the plan that have some bipartisan support. But the president facing a real dilemma over this public health insurance option.

He seems to be caught in something of a squeeze play. You've got the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, saying unless there is a strong public option, this bill can't pass the House. Yet you've got top Democrats in the Senate saying we can't get it through the Senate if there is a public option included.

So how does the president thread that needle?

GIBBS: Well, look, George, let's spend a couple of minutes, because I'm sure it will be a big subject today on your "Roundtable," on what a public option isn't. A public option, first of all, will not affect the health insurance for 160 million to 180 million that get it through employer-sponsored coverage.

We're talking about dealing with the individual and small business market of health insurance reform, right? So the vast majority of people, if you're on Medicare…


STEPHANOPOULOS: Aren't even eligible.

GIBBS: You're not even going to be affected in any way, shape, or form by a public option, right? We're just trying to provide -- the president is trying to provide choice and competition in a market, again, for individual and small business rates -- small business owners.

This will not be unfairly subsidized and compete against private insurers at an unfair basis. This will operate under the premiums that they collect.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So won't dictate Medicare rates.

GIBBS: It won't dictate those type of things -- let me give you a story, George. I have a friend in Alabama, where I'm from, who started a small business in January. We're all enormously proud of him starting a business.

Though the first thing he had to do was go find insurance for his family. So he entered the individual market in Alabama. Eighty-nine percent of people on the individual and small business market in Alabama get their insurance through one provider, Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

He is lucky, right? His family is healthy. And he was accepted to get coverage. But in talking to other small business owners, he found that a lot of them were denied coverage. He is lucky, again, because his family is healthy but, lord knows, George, if he loses his health insurance for any reason, and his family gets sick, he is going to be in a real bind.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you're making…

GIBBS: We want to provide people like that in that market that are in the individual and small business market with something of an option. In this case a public option that provides choice and competition.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But I -- I recognize that. And the president has long said that he prefers…

GIBBS: And checks…


STEPHANOPOULOS: … that. He wants a public option, but…

GIBBS: And he still does.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But -- he wants it, but will he sign a bill that doesn't include it? Because it can't get through the Senate.

GIBBS: Well, we're not going to prejudge what the process will be when we sign a bill, which the president expects to do this year. The president strongly believes that we have to have an option like this to provide choice and competition, to provide a check on insurance companies, because without it, again, we're going to have markets as big as a whole state of Alabama, almost 90 percent of which is dominated by one insurance company.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But is it essential? I mean, that's the key question. We've known for months that the president is for it. Is it essential to health care reform?

GIBBS: The president believes it is a valuable tool. And I think you'll hear him talk about it on Wednesday.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But not essential?

GIBBS: It's a valuable tool and provides choice and competition, something that you'll hear him talk about extensively on Wednesday.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So he -- let me just try to sum this up, then. The president, from what I can hear, is going to make the case for the public health insurance option -- for a form of the public insurance option on Wednesday.

But he is not going to say, if you don't bring me one, I veto the bill.

GIBBS: Well, I doubt we're going to get into heavy veto threats on Wednesday. We're going to talk about what we can do because we're so close to getting it done. He will talk about the public option and why he believes and continues to believe that it is a valuable component of providing choice and competition, it helps individuals and small businesses, at the same time provides a check on insurance companies so they don't dominate the market.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Even though he knows that means he is not going to get Republicans on the bill?

GIBBS: Well, we haven't closed the door on Republicans that are ready, able, and willing to work with the president to try to provide a solution for this.

And, George, I think if you talk to Republican members, both in the House and the Senate, the one thing they will come back from over this August break, regardless of all of the heat and light around town hall meetings, is you still have millions and millions of constituents telling leaders in Congress, Democrats and Republicans, that we have to get something done.

That failure is not an option because millions of Americans are watching their premiums skyrocket.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And we're going to talk to them in just a couple of minutes. Robert Gibbs, thank you very much.

GIBBS: Thank you, George.

STEPHANOPOULOS: We're going to broaden out the conversation now, and as the panelists take their seats, take a look at how two of them sparred the last time Congress debated health care.


DASCHLE: We want universal coverage by a date certain. We want to ensure that whatever mechanism brings that about is very clear and is as immediate as we can make it.

DOLE: If better means more government, more bureaucracy, more mandates, more price controls and more taxes, then we don't want to make it better.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Bob Dole and Tom Daschle in 1994. They are joining us now. Let me welcome the former Senate Republican Leader Robert Dole, former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, Congresswoman Maxine Waters from the Democrats, Congressman Mike Pence from the Republicans.

And Senator Dole, let me begin with you, because Robert Gibbs gave us a lot to chew on there. On the one hand, he says that the president is likely -- is ready to introduce legislation as you call for. You also heard him there, he says the president is going to come up Wednesday night and argue for that public option. Is that helpful?

DOLE: Well, I mean, he has every right to do it, but I don't think it's going to go anywhere. And you know, in our recommendations, as Tom can verify, we permit a public option after -- an option after five years, if the insurance companies haven't cleaned up their act. Then there is a trigger of sorts, and you could get into a public option.

But I think we've spent too much time on that. This is a massive piece of legislation, 1,100, 1,200 pages. And there is more to it than just a public option. You know, I think we ought to go back and look at cost containment, look at insurance reform, look at how we can encourage people to be more responsible themselves. And there are a lot of things we can do that will not cost as much money, because I know Congresswoman Waters is very conservative when it comes to spending. And we want to help her if we can.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So is this going to provide the kind of fresh start you were calling for earlier this week?

DOLE: Well, I don't want to say because I was calling for it. I think it will, though. I think once the president is in charge and has ownership, it's elevated. I mean, I think he'll jump up in the polls, because the people, Democrats, Republicans, whoever they're from, have confidence in the president of the United States. It's a little wobbly these days, but generally, whether it's a Democrat or Republican in the White House, when he takes on an issue, claims ownership and says this is what I want to do, not what some committee wants to do or some very powerful member wants to do, I think it's a big, big plus for the president.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me bring your Democratic counterpart in here. You know how to count the votes...

DOLE: Oh, he's good.

STEPHANOPOULOS: ... in the Senate. The president is clearly now going to make this argument for the public option. But at least from my reading, it doesn't appear that that's going to move the Democrats in the Senate who have to be moved. There has been some pretty stiff opposition.

DASCHLE: Well, George, I think what you have to do -- we haven't had the first vote on the floor of either the House or the Senate. You know, we're all already deciding what's in, what's out, what's good, what's not, before we've had the first day of debate. And I think what we ought to do is have a good debate.

The president has made it very clear where he stands. Now is the Congress' opportunity to respond. If they don't want it, then we have to make an assessment at the end of the day whether all the other things we've done, just as Bob said, so well, is worth support.

You know, we have an opportunity to expand coverage to every American, to control costs for the first time in a real way, to dramatically improve quality, which we need so badly, and to provide more Americans with greater choice.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But this is my question for you. I mean, you, both of you and Senator Dole called for this bipartisan approach that did not include the public health insurance option. Do you think...

DASCHLE: Well, we did.

STEPHANOPOULOS: As a fallback after five years. As a matter of strategy, is it better for the president to push for this at the front end, knowing that it's going to upset a lot of Republicans and hurt the chances for a bipartisan deal, or is it better to have a kind of preemptive concession saying, you know, we've had some debates about this, we're not ready to go?

DASCHLE: Well, my advice to the president would be what others have suggested as well. Make yourself very clear. Make it clear what it is you want, and then let's have the debate. I don't -- you know, at the end of the day, you've got to make concessions. You've got to negotiate. There is always give-and-take. But to give and take before you even get the debate under way seems a little premature to me.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And Congresswoman Waters, you've been a strong advocate of this public health insurance option. You've said as part of the Progressive Caucus, said that they will note vote for any bill that doesn't include a robust option, either first time through the House or when it comes back from the Senate in conference.

From what you heard from Robert Gibbs today, the way he described the public health insurance option and the way he called it valuable and not essential, is that going to get the support of you and other progressives?

WATERS: Well, first of all, we support what the president has said all along he'd like to see, and that is a robust public option. He campaigned on it. He continues to talk about his support for it. And we're going to stand behind him. Nancy Pelosi has said that nothing is going to pass that floor without a public option.

With all due respect to Senator Dole, the Republicans are not going to support a credible health care reform bill led by the president or the Democrats.

We're not going to get their support. I appreciate the work that's been done by the president to try and get a bipartisan bill, but there will be no bipartisan bill. And I would like Senator Dole and former senators, both, to talk about what it means to use budget reconciliation with a majority of the senators getting this bill passed, rather than trying to continue to cajole the Republicans to win support.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I want to get to that question, but first, let me bring in Congressman Pence. Because you said no matter what, the Republicans just aren't going to support anything...

WATERS: No, they're not.

STEPHANOPOULOS: ... the president calls for. Your response?

PENCE: Not true, George. And Maxine knows how much I like and respect her. But Republicans are ready to work for comprehensive health care reform. You know, when I went home and did town hall meetings across the state of Indiana, I heard people saying, look, we need health care reform. We need to do something to lower the cost of health insurance for families and small businesses and lower the cost of health care. But I also heard people say that they don't want a government-run plan that is going to lead to a government takeover of health care in this country...

WATERS: But where is the government-run plan?

PENCE: Paid for with $800 billion in higher taxes.

STEPHANOPOULOS: If the public health insurance option is simply one choice among many, as Robert Gibbs has said, how is that a government-run plan?

PENCE: That's a really fair question. And I just saw Robert Gibbs on the show say that a public option introduced would not affect people in any way, shape or form.

Look, the American people know better. I mean, when I get up in front of folks and I say, look, in this economy, an economy that just swelled to 9.7 percent unemployment, we lost 1,000 Whirlpool jobs in Evansville, Indiana two weeks ago when I was there. In this economy, there's no small business or large business worth its salt that isn't going to take a hard look at sending all of their employees to the federal government for their health insurance the minute a public option is available. Under the plan that's been proposed, businesses have to pay, what, an 8 percent payroll tax, and they can cancel all their coverage.

I mean, the president says you can keep your health insurance if you like it. But it's awful hard to keep your health insurance if your employer cancels it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: What's the answer to that objection?

DASCHLE: Well, what we have said from the very beginning is that we're going to level the playing field. There is not going to be an inherent advantage, George, with the government plan. So, Congressman Pence's prediction, I think, is really baseless.

You've got -- if you have real competition, he has supported and rightfully so, the FEHB model, the federal employee health benefits plan model. That's what we have in Congress. We have a myriad of choices, a myriad of options. You don't see anybody rushing to one over the other, because there's equal competition. And that's exactly what we would have in these exchanges, as the president has proposed.

PENCE: George, if I may, and I think it's a fair point, but there's not a public option in the federal employee benefits plan, Senator. The reality is that federal employees, all 10 million of us, get to choose between five different private health insurance plans. And they're affordable because federal employees are permitted to purchase health insurance on a nationwide basis. We ought to allow the American people to purchase health insurance across state lines. Robert Gibbs is right. Alabama, 89 percent of the businesses in Alabama have to go to one health insurance company. That's true in most states. There's a virtual monopoly. Let's let the American people shop across state lines and bring real competition without a government plan.

DASCHLE: If I could just respond real quickly. That's a race to the bottom, and a lot of people understand that. They'd all go to the state with the lowest thresholds for eligibility. And all the problems that we've seen in other cases.

But I would say, I find it interesting that many of the conservative and Republican opponents to a public option oppose it in large measure because it would be so popular. I mean, that's their argument. Everybody is going to go to this public plan, even though we guarantee that it's going to have a level playing field. But their opposition is because it's going to be so popular, they oppose it. I find that logic...


DOLE: But in addition, they have some concern for the private sector, the insurance industry. And if, you know, in our recommendations, if they don't clean up their act in a period of five years, they're going to suffer from it. So I would oppose -- I would suppose if the government was telling me I had five years to clean up preexisting conditions and all of the other things that were wrong, that I would get to it on the first day.



WATERS: ... pulled the trigger, and I'm not for supporting five more years of these health insurers ripping off the American public.

DOLE: It's going to be at least five years before the bill is implemented.

WATERS: Senator, the co-payments, the deductibles, not insuring people with preexisting conditions, they're showing us what they care about. You have the president of Aetna making $24 million a year, and the ten top insurers, all of their CEOs are making over $10 million a year. We can't give them five more years of this. We need credible, comprehensive, universal health care with a good, robust public option now.

DOLE: They don't need to wait for the full five years.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me also bring up the other question that the congresswoman raised earlier, Senator, with you. In part because there's precious little yet Republican support for what the president has called for, the Democrats are considering this reconciliation option, which would be Democrats trying to pass it on their own with the majority vote. What will be the impact of that?

DOLE: Maybe I don't understand it, understand people, but I have always felt that if it's bipartisan, Democrats with Republicans, or Republicans with Democrats, it's going to have a lot of credibility, particularly if it's going to be sort of the president's bill.

And the American people know if Maxine and Mike are voting for this bill, it must be a pretty good bill. Or if you've offended every interest in town, it must be a pretty good bill. And I just think it just elevates everything two or three notches. And I think the American people say, well, if Tom Daschle's for it, and Mike Pence is for it, name 20 or 30 -- I'm an optimist. I still think we're going to get a lot of Republicans to vote for final passage if it's a reasonable bill. And I want...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Even if it includes the public option?

DOLE: I wouldn't go that far.


WATERS: But with all due respect, you're one of the most respected members of the United States Senate, having served with great distinction, and you can't get Republicans to support a credible health care reform bill.

DOLE: I'm working on it.

WATERS: They're not going to do it.

PENCE: But we have really seen this pattern from the beginning of the year. I mean, they passed a so-called stimulus bill that -- without any Republican ideas.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Three Republicans in the Senate.

PENCE: Budget-busting budget...


PENCE: They passed cap-and-trade on virtually a partisan basis. Now they're driving through this government takeover of health care. You know, I really think the American people -- at least the town hall meetings that I had, George -- many Americans feel that this federal government is spiralling out of control. They want to see us take a half-step back, and figure out how we can lower the cost of health insurance, lower the cost of health care, have a strategy for energy, put our fiscal health in order. And yet what they see is, with all due respect to Maxine, what they hear is, well, they're not working with us, so we're just going to do it on our own.


WATERS: You had your opportunity. You don't have a bill. Where's your bill? What have you come up with? What are you offering as an alternative? This president has reached across the aisle. He's done everything. He's stroked, he's cajoled, he's begged, but the Republicans are not supporting him.

It's bigger than health care. It's about President Obama, and the Republicans have decided to use this by which to bring him down.


PENCE: Maxine, I don't believe that's true.


WATERS: Well, I believe it's true, and it's been said.

PENCE: Republicans have a number of bills. We have a broad proposal developed by Congressman Roy Blunt. We're talking about, as I described before, allow Americans to purchase health insurance across state lines. Let's bring about malpractice reform to end the era of defensive medicine. These are all ideas we're willing to bring to the table, but we don't want a government takeover of health care, paid for with $800 billion in taxes.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me bring this back to Senator Daschle, because you were resistant to this idea of using reconciliation earlier in the year in your public comments. Do you think it's necessary now?

DASCHLE: Well, my first choice is to do what Bob Dole suggests, to see if we can still find ways to make it a bipartisan bill. We don't have enough Bob Doles in the Senate today, and that's the problem. But I think...

DOLE: I need work, too.

DASCHLE: He's out of work. But if I think if we can't do it any other way, we shouldn't be bound by this process. I think both parties have used it. We used it to pass a single most important...

WATERS: That's right.

DASCHLE: ... health bill ever in the last 20 years, the children's health insurance plan. We used reconciliation to do that. The Republicans tried to use it to pass the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. And they've used it for every tax cut so far. There's no question both Republicans and Democrats have used it in the past.

STEPHANOPOULOS: We're just about out of time. I would just like to ask you, Senator Dole, something else. You made a little bit of news on Friday when you told Politico you thought...

DOLE: About Petraeus for president?

STEPHANOPOULOS: Tell me about Petraeus for president.

DOLE: Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. But I don't know him. I've met him, I don't know him. I don't know his politics. He may be in the other party. But I don't know, he's just always impressed me as being very candid with the American people, laying it all out there. Kind of an Eisenhower, you know. He may not be versed in all the different things that we do in Congress and the administration, but he's a quick study.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So, you would like to see him on the ticket for the Republicans?

DOLE: Sure, why not? Maybe I can run with him.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Dole, thank you. Thank you all very much.

WATERS: You're welcome.

STEPHANOPOULOS: When we come back -- he's sparked a debate with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his fellow conservatives. George Will responds to his critics next on the roundtable, with Matthew Dowd, David Sanger and Katrina Vanden Heuvel.