Transcript: Sens. McConnell and McCaskill

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ABC NEWS, THIS WEEK WITH GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS INTERVIEW WITH SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL AND SENATOR CLAIRE MCCASKILL.

SPEAKERS: GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, HOST: ABC'S "THIS WEEK WITH GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS" OCTOBER 25, 2009

STEPHANOPOULOS: Good morning, and welcome to "This Week."

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SEN. HARRY REID, D-NEV.: I support a public option.

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STEPHANOPOULOS: New life for the public option. Is it back for good?

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SEN. OLYMPIA J. SNOWE, R-MAINE: In terms of the public option question, which I, you know, am opposed to...

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STEPHANOPOULOS: Putting the squeeze on CEOs.

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(UNKNOWN): Let the these companies do what they do best.

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STEPHANOPOULOS: Will it work or wreck the banks?

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(UNKNOWN): I try to balance both sides.

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STEPHANOPOULOS: The White House war with Fox.

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DAVID AXELROD, SENIOR ADVISER TO THE PRESIDENT: It's really not news. It's pushing a point of view.

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STEPHANOPOULOS: And Cheney's war with the White House.

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DICK CHENEY, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: President Obama now seems afraid to make a decision.

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STEPHANOPOULOS: We cover it all this morning with the latest from Congress in exclusive interviews with the Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill.

Plus, debate and analysis in our expanded powerhouse roundtable, with George Will, Obama ally John Podesta from the Center for American Progress, Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham, Cynthia Tucker from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Washington bureau chief of Bloomberg News, Al Hunt.

And as always, the Sunday Funnies.

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CONAN O'BRIEN, TALK SHOW HOST: One of the top-selling costumes this Halloween is the vampire version of President Obama called Baracula. Not so popular, Congressman Barney Frankenstein.

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STEPHANOPOULOS: Is this the endgame on health reform? Will anyone win the battle between the White House and Fox News? And has the attorney general effectively ended an era of prohibition with his announcement this week on medical marijuana? The roundtable's right here to tackle all that and more today, including some breaking news out of Baghdad. More than 100 killed and 500 injured in twin suicide bombings aimed at government buildings right in the heart of the Iraqi capital.

But let's begin with by checking with both sides in the Senate. We have Democrat Claire McCaskill and the Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell.

And Senator McConnell, let me begin with you. Your counterpart, the Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, has been working the phones for the last several days. He believes he's a day or two away from getting the 60 votes he needs to break any Republican filibuster of health care reform. Is he right, and does this mean that health care is going to pass this year?

MCCONNELL: Well, I think we'll have to wait and see. We do know that we had the first vote in the health care debate last week, and it was a bipartisan majority, 100 percent of Republicans and 13 Democrats agreeing that we should not borrow a quarter of a trillion dollars at the outset. In other words, not send a bill to our grandchildren, in the very first vote of the health care debate. So we'll see how it unfolds.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So much of this is centered right now, so much of the debate is centered right now on this issue of the public option. The latest iteration that Senator Reid is working on is that he would set up a national program, but states would have the ability to opt out of the program, and it comes as the New York Times is reporting this morning that small businesses are going to face an increase in their health insurance premiums of 15 percent next year, 15 percent on average for small businesses. Given that, doesn't it make sense that there be a public health insurance option to compete with the private insurers?

MCCONNELL: No, it doesn't make any sense at all. In fact, I think 100 percent of Republicans have indicated they don't think having the government in the insurance business is a good idea.

What we do know about this bill, though, George, aside from whether or not there's a government insurance company in it or not, we do know it's half a trillion dollars in Medicare cuts. We know it's $400 billion in tax increases on individuals and businesses. And we know the CBO says that insurance premiums for everybody will go up, that's 85 percent of Americans who already have health insurance.

So, wholly aside from the debate over whether the government gets into the insurance business, the core of the proposal is a bill that the American public clearly does not like.

STEPHANOPOULOS: It comes, though, at a time when also it appears that your party is facing more political trouble that you have had in years. We had a new poll out of ABC News this week showing that only 20 percent of Americans now call themselves Republicans. When we asked the question, who do you trust to take the country in the right direction? 49 percent of the country said President Obama. Only 19 percent said they trust congressional Republicans to take the country in the right direction. If only 19 percent of the country believes that you can take them in the right direction, isn't that a sign you're doing something wrong?

MCCONNELL: Look, the Gallup poll, which is out there every day, the oldest poll and the most respected poll in America, asked the question that really makes a difference, and that is the question, if the election were held tomorrow, who would you be more likely to vote for, the Republican candidate for Congress or the Democratic candidate for Congress? Last November, not surprisingly, my party was down 12. Two weeks ago, we were down 2. So the issue is not so much whether they're identifying with Republicans or Democrats, but how would they vote. And I think you sense over in Virginia, for example, the candidate for governor on the Democratic ticket in Virginia is complaining about the atmosphere in Washington causing him problems.

MCCONNELL: I think if you just want to talk about the politics of all of this, George, I think it is clearly not working for the administration or for the Democratic majority.

STEPHANOPOULOS: At a time when only 19 percent of the country believes that congressional Republicans are taking the country in the right direction?

MCCONNELL: I think something like 22 percent like Congress, and it's run by the Democrats. I think people are disaffected right now. But the fundamental question, George, is not whether they are disaffected. It's how will they vote, and we'll have an early test case of that over in the Virginia governor's race here in just a couple of weeks.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you don't believe that the Republican Party in Congress has to make any course corrections right now?

MCCONNELL: Well, we're going to offer alternatives. We have been all year. We're going to offer alternatives on the health care debate. The American people will have a chance to see that there is a choice, and that will be important going into next year's election.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And finally, do you believe in the end that you're going to be successful, or is the president going to get what he wants this year?

MCCONNELL: Well, look, I'm not going to predict the outcome. What I do know is that all the nervousness is on the Democratic side. You saw that last week, and with 13 Democratic defections on this effort, to do this Medicare reimbursement issue without paying for it, by sending the bill to our grandchildren, we know there is nervousness among Democrats over this increasing view that Congress is acting like a teenager with their parents' credit card, not worried about who's going to have to pay the bill.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Before I let you go, let me ask you a question about the swine flu. The president declared late Friday night a national emergency to give the federal government more power to deal with the spread of the H1N1 virus. Are you comfortable with that declaration? And is there anything more Congress can or should be doing?

MCCONNELL: Well, the administration tells us that we've given them all the authority and all the money they need. So if they need anything additionally from Congress, I know we'll be happy to provide it, on a totally bipartisan basis.

STEPHANOPOULOS: OK, Senator McConnell, thanks very much for your time this morning. Let me now bring in Democrat Claire McCaskill from Missouri. Senator McCaskill, I knew the second that swine flu came out of my mouth instead of H1N1, you'd be down -- you'd be jumping down my throat, so I apologize in advance for that...

MCCASKILL: I was thinking about my hog farmers.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I knew you were.

On this national emergency, we do know that your hog farmers, though, are going to be coming in for more scrutiny. Do you agree with Senator McConnell that the Congress is prepared to give the president anything more he asks for, and do you believe specifically is there anything more he should be doing right now?

MCCASKILL: No, I think that they've done a very effective coordinated effort within the Obama administration on the H1N1 virus. I think we are better prepared for this than, frankly, most of us anticipated when this surfaced a few months ago, and I think Congress is ready to give him any additional help. I think everyone -- one of the reasons we have so many more people going to the doctor for flu symptoms is because we've done such a good job with public awareness.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's turn to the issues -- the broader issue of health care. You heard Senator McConnell there. You were one of several Democrats to actually vote against this plan to relax the cuts to -- Medicare cuts to doctors this week, because it wasn't paid for. So how are you going to solve that as this goes forward in broader health care reform?

MCCASKILL: Well, I think what we'll do is we'll do a one-year fix that's paid for, and continue to work on ways that we can bring in these costs and make sure everything is paid for. But I think that Mitch McConnell is busy on politics instead of policy. I don't think that the vote last week should be any signal to America that we have lost the will to move forward and fix the ridiculously difficult and expensive health care dilemma we face in this country. And frankly, you can't be a deficit hawk -- you can't be a serious deficit hawk and not realize we've got to do something. Just continuing to do what we're doing now is going to put health care out of reach of most Americans within a decade.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You know, you say you're only going to do a one- year extension of this Medicare, of these Medicare payments to doctors. I assume (ph) that's going to make the American Medical Association pretty unhappy. Are you certain you're still going to have their support for the broader reform if you do that?

MCCASKILL: Well, I mean, everyone is, you know, what's really happening right now is there is a lot of misinformation out there. And as people learn more about what this insurance exchange is and the public option, they begin to realize that this is not an all- encompassing government plan. In fact, the only people, George, that have to participate in the insurance exchange are members of Congress. We have written all the bills that require members of Congress and their staffs to go to the insurance exchange to buy insurance. And that's where we hope some kind of public alternative will be, in order to bring down costs.

So, I think that the hospitals are worried. The doctors are worried. The insurance companies are worried. The pharmaceutical companies are worried. Some Americans are worried. That's because we're trying to fix something that's complicated, that has broad implications.

STEPHANOPOULOS: It's also...

MCCASKILL: I think, though, that the devil we know is much worse than what we're proposing to do.

STEPHANOPOULOS: It's also because of a little bit of lack of clarity on what exactly the Congress is going to do, and I want to zero in on this public option because you've had all these behind-the- scenes negotiations right now. What exactly is Senator Reid talking about on the public option right now?

STEPHANOPOULOS: The way it's been described to me is that you would have a national plan, but it would be a national plan that doesn't impose Medicare rates or Medicare plus 5 percent, but one has the power to negotiate with the private insurance companies, but it would also give any individual state the right to say, no, I don't want to be part of the national plan.

Is that what he's calling for now and is it something you can support?

MCCASKILL: I -- I think what we're going to end up with is having votes on a number of choices: the ability for states to opt in to some kind of not-for-profit plan; the ability for states to opt out of some kind of not-for-profit plan to compete with the private insurance companies on this exchange; and then the option to trigger a not-for-profit plan if the insurance companies don't manage to bring down costs within a certain period of time.

I frankly have not drawn a line in the sand. I support the public option. I'll vote for the public option. But I'm focused on these deficit costs, on how can we reconfigure the way we pay for health care in a way that, long term, will begin to have an impact on these deficits that are really going to threaten the security of our nation in the next 10 to 20 years, if we don't get serious about it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You say you haven't drawn a line in the sand, but the only Republican who's voted for the bill so far, Olympia Snowe, has. She was with our friend Al Hunt, here, just the other day, and he asked her -- I want to show this -- whether she would accept anything but this trigger option that you talked about, which would be imposed if the insurance companies don't do their job.

Here it was.

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HUNT: You wouldn't accept any public option other than a trigger -- is that a...

(CROSSTALK)

SNOWE: That -- that's -- that's correct. Yes, I haven't thought of any other calculation, but a public option at the forefront really does put the government in a disproportionate position with respect to the industry.

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STEPHANOPOULOS: Now, you suggested that she might be getting that as an option to vote for later on, but it's not the option that Senator Reid is working on right now.

Are you worried that you and your Democratic colleagues might be driving away the only Republican who seems inclined to support this effort?

MCCASKILL: Well, sure. I think -- you know, I'd be less than honest if I didn't say all of us were concerned about making sure we get the votes to move forward. But I remain pretty optimistic.

I think, as -- one of the reasons, I think, the poling has improved for what we're doing in Washington is that it's open enrollment period right now. And so many people are looking, once again, at another year where they're not going to get a raise because all of their raise is going to go to increased health care costs.

So I think that -- and keep in mind, if we get some of the more moderate senators like Ben Nelson and Evan Bayh and Joe Lieberman in the fold, it would not surprise me to see the few remaining moderate Republicans come along.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So, bottom line, you believe this does get done this year and it does have a public option?

MCCASKILL: I think it gets done this year and I think we end up with some kind of opportunity to go to a public not-for-profit option among many private options that people that currently don't have insurance -- and keep in mind, not everybody can even go to this exchange and buy insurance with any kind of subsidy. This is going to be a fairly limited number of people -- 25 million to 30 million are the estimates -- that would even be on this insurance exchange.

By and large, most of this country is going to continue to get their health insurance through their employer.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So it is all about option this morning. Senator McCaskill, thank you very much. Let me bring in the roundtable.

MCCASKILL: It's all about options.

(LAUGHTER)

STEPHANOPOULOS: OK, let me bring in the roundtable right now.

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