'This Week with George Stephanopoulos' Transcript: Axelrod, Durbin, Kyl

President Obama's Top Advisor David Axelrod, and Sens. Dick Durbin and Jon Kyl on Health Care

Dec. 20, 2009 —

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, HOST: Washington is digging out of its worst blizzard in years. The Senate is slogging through another weekend on health care. But for now, at least, the outcome is no longer in doubt. Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska announced he would support the bill yesterday, the key vote will come early tomorrow morning, setting up a final vote by Christmas, and a tough conference with the House early next year. A lot to analyze this morning, and we'll begin with one of the president's closest advisers, David Axelrod.

Welcome back to THIS WEEK.

DAVID AXELROD, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE ADVISER: Thanks, George. Happy to have Chicago weather.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You sure do have it this weekend. Thanks for coming in through the snow.

Republicans are already calling this a Pyrrhic victory. And they have a united front against it right now. Here was John McCain yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: ... reform in American history has been a bipartisan effort. Never in my experience has one party attempted to increase the government's influence in one-sixth of the American economy over the nearly unanimous opposition of the other party.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHANOPOULOS: And, David, the public seems to have questions as well. We did a poll this week, ABC News/Washington Post poll, that showed that 53 percent of the public think their own health care will cost more if this passes, 55 percent think the health care system overall will cost more, and only 37 percent think their own quality of care will be better.

In the face of this kind of skepticism, is it wise to ram through legislation like this, such a huge piece of legislation on a party-line vote?

AXELROD: Well, I would say a few things, George. First of all, you say this is what people think, I think when people see what actually happens after these reforms are passed, those concerns are going to be allayed, and they're going to realize that if they have insurance, they're more secure in their relationship with their insurance company, their costs are going to go down.

If they don't have insurance, they can get it at a price they can afford. It's going to reduce our deficit. It's going to extend the life of Medicare. Medicare recipients are going to get a better deal on prescription drugs and better care. So the reality I think will trump polls numbers in the dead of winter as this debate is going on.

In terms of ramming it through, we've been talking about this, we've been debating it and considering it for eight months. The Republican Party has spent a month engaged in parliamentary maneuvers and dilatory tactics to try and prevent and vote.

Understand, the big question here isn't whether or not we're going to get a vote, whether this will pass or not, the big question is whether the Republican Party will allow a vote. A majority of senators support this reform, and the Republican Party wants to prevent it from coming up for a vote. I think the American people are entitled to a vote.

If you are a person with pre-existing conditions, if you're a small business person who can't afford health care, if you are a person who became seriously ill and was thrown off your insurance -- their insurance because of that, if you're going bankrupt because of out-of-pocket expenses, you need the United States Senate to act.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But most of the changes, even if the bill passes won't be instituted until after the next presidential election, so you're asking people to take an awful lot on faith.

AXELROD: George, that's not really true, almost all of these insurance protections, the things that will protect people in terms of out-of-pocket costs, the pre -- children...

(CROSSTALK)

STEPHANOPOULOS: (INAUDIBLE).

AXELROD: The day the president signs the bill, children with pre-existing conditions will now be -- an insurance company can't keep them from joining their parents' insurance policy. People with pre-existing conditions will have a catastrophic plan they can join.

And then, of course, when the thing goes fully into effect, everyone will be on insurance, insurance companies can't ban anyone with pre-existing conditions. But there are number of insurance protections that go into effect as soon as the president signs the bill. And not to mention, will begin reducing that gap in Medicare prescription coverage. So there...

STEPHANOPOULOS: The doughnut hole.

AXELROD: There are many, many benefits to this that go into effect right away. And most of them affect people who have insurance already.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Ben Nelson provided the 60th vote yesterday -- said he would provide the 60th vote yesterday, but he also laid out a warning, you've got a tough conference ahead with the House, and here's what he had to say about that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BEN NELSON (D), NEBRASKA: I reserve the right to vote against the next cloture vote if there are material changes to this agreement in the conference report. And I will vote against it if that is the case.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHANOPOULOS: So he still can hold this whole agreement hostage. Senator Joe Lieberman can still hold this whole agreement hostage. Yet you've got progressives in the House and your outside supporters like Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, saying that if the bill doesn't move back in the direction of the House, they can't support it.

How do you thread that needle?

AXELROD: Well, look, this whole process has been like that, George. You know, the president said months and months ago that the best advice he got at the beginning of this process was that health reform would be declared dead at least five times before he signed the bill.

It's difficult. We're trying to do something difficult. As you know, seven presidents have tried this. Seven presidents have failed. We've been talking about it for a hundred years. So nobody expected this to be easy. We -- but I think that there is a determination in that Congress to get something done here.

Everybody understands that we can't sustain this system as it is. It's crushing families and businesses. People need protections against the excesses of their insurance companies. People who don't have insurance need to have insurance. And we need to reduce the overall cost of the system.

So I think that despite all of these problems, the will to get it done is there and we will get it done.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But the president is going to have to weigh in. Huge difference between the House and the Senate on taxes. The House has a surtax on the wealthiest Americans, the Senate has this tax on high-priced "Cadillac" health insurance plans which the president has said time and time again is a key component of cost control.

Does that mean he's going to fight for the Senate bill on the issue of taxes?

AXELROD: The president has made the case that many others have made that by putting an excise tax on these very high insurance policies on the insurance companies. You'll encourage them to get rid of the feather-bedding and the waste and make these policies more efficient...

STEPHANOPOULOS: So that's essential for the president.

AXELROD: He still believes that. But I'm not going to negotiate here, George. We'll have that discussion moving forward. Right now our focus is on getting this bill through the Senate and to conference so we can take the final step and bring some relief to the American people.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Nelson also fought hard for new language on abortion. It would -- he says, would restrict federal funds to abortion. It is now being opposed by Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League. It's also being opposed on the other side by the National Right to Life Committee and the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops.

Now you could argue that shows you've gotten something right because everyone on the wings is against it. But it also shows how tenuous the compromise is. Can that center hold?

AXELROD: Well, I think it can because I think what's at stake is so great that I think that people -- you know, Barbara Boxer, who is one of the great advocates for abortion rights in the Senate, was in the room when this was thrashed out. And I think she paid a great deal of attention to the details of this.

The president's goal from the beginning was not to upset what the existing federal law was, which is that you don't use federal funds for abortion services. His feeling was this was not the vehicle through which to have that debate.

We believe that the compromise that was struck is faithful to that commitment. Now there are people on either side of the debate who would like to use this process in other ways. And I understand that. But this is not the...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Congress...

(CROSSTALK)

AXELROD: Is not the vehicle for it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The leader of the pro-life forces in the House, Congressman Stupak, almost brought down the original House bill, says he's not satisfied. Can he bring down the bill again?

AXELROD: Well, look, this is what the legislative process is about. And everybody is trying to leverage their best position. I think that the compromise that was arrived at was good because it preserved the rights of women to choose and didn't change existing law in a way that -- one way or the other. And I expect that will something that people can rally around.

But that will be thrashed out in the next few weeks.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You got yourself in a little hot water earlier this week when you called Howard Dean insane.

AXELROD: I didn't say he was insane, I want to make that clear. Howard Dean is a friend of mine. I have a great respect for him. He is a medical doctor, and I know he feels passionately about that. What I said was, it would be insane to pass on an opportunity to enact the reform that would have such positive impact on our future and on the well-being of families across this country.

And I still believe that. It was probably an unfortunate choice of words.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But what do you say to progressives like Dean who think they've given an awful lot, they think they've given up the public option, no question about that, they give the Medicare buy-in, and they see moderate centrist Democrats like Ben Nelson, independents like Joe Lieberman, making demands and getting everything they want?

AXELROD: Well, it's fair to say that when you have 60, everybody makes demands, and this bill has the imprint of 60 members of the Senate. And, frankly, Republicans as well, there were 160 amendments in one of the health committees of -- adopted from the Republican Party.

But look, Governor Dean's main concern was that he called this a giveaway to the insurance company, but his facts were wrong. The fact is that this bill, for the first time, prohibits insurance companies from spending excessive amounts of money on CEO salaries, on administrative cost, on shareholder profits, so that more money is devoted to patient care. That's written into the bill.

We're going to have competition within these health insurance exchanges, where small businesses and people who don't have insurance go to buy insurance, and there are going to be a whole range of guarantees. The patients bill of rights, George, that was fought so vehemently in the '90s and insurance companies won -- it's embedded it in this bill. Every American is going to have greater leverage against their -- with their insurance company. They won't be subject to the vagaries of insurance company bureaucrats when we pass this bill. This is a great victory for American consumers, patients, families, businesses.

STEPHANOPOULOS: One final question on Iran. The Times of London reported earlier this week that they had obtained intelligence documents showing that Iran had been working on a nuclear trigger. This has been looked at by western intelligence agencies as well, and if authentic, the most significant evidence yet that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. Diane Sawyer interviewed President Ahmadinejad about this, and here was the exchange.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SAWYER: Critics of Iran saying this is the smoking gun. Have you been testing a neutron initiator? PRES. MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, IRAN (through translator): I think that some of the claims about the nuclear issue have turned into repetitive and tasteless jokes.

SAWYER: Would you like to see this document, is a joke?

AHMADINEJAD: No, I don't want to see this kind of document. These are some fabricated papers issued by the American government.

SAWYER: Will you return to talks on nuclear issues?

AHMADINEJAD: We have not closed the dialogue window. (inaudible) ready, and also there is a continuing dialogue and discussion.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHANOPOULOS: Fabricated papers issued by the American government?

AXELROD: Well, of course that's nonsense. Listen, nobody has any illusions about what the intent of the Iranian government is. And we've given them an opportunity to prove otherwise by allowing them to ship their nuclear material out to be reprocessed for peaceful use. And they have passed on that deal so far. And the international community is going to have to deal with that if they don't change their minds.

(CROSSTALK)

AXELROD: ... we'll see about that, because there seems to be division within their government. Understand, George, what's happened. When we came to office, Iran was united and the world was divided in an approach to deal with Iran. Today, Iran is bitterly divided, and the world community has come together, and the president has been a big force in bringing them together. And I think that the world is united and is willing to take additional steps if the Iranians don't turn around.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But bottom line is, if they don't turn it around by December 31st, sanctions will come?

AXELROD: Well, we're talking -- plainly, there are going to be consequences if they don't turn around.

STEPHANOPOULOS: David Axelrod, thanks very much.

AXELROD: Good to be with you. STEPHANOPOULOS: For more on all this, we are now joined by the Senate whips, Democrat Dick Durbin, Republican Jon Kyl.

And, Senator Kyl, let me begin with you. You heard David Axelrod there. He said he's not ramming this through at all; it's been the Republicans who've been holding this up with dilatory tactics.

KYL: I think it's interesting that the American people oppose this legislation by every opinion poll, CNN last week, 61 percent opposed, 36 percent support. David Axelrod kind of tipped the -- tipped his position off when he said, well, the people in Washington know best now, and eventually the American people will come around to like this.

They can't sell it on the merits. So the way they sell it is through an artifice. First of all, you have to vote up against Christmas. If you want to go home for Christmas, you've got to go through these series of votes and vote for it.

And, secondly, what do you want? The president is reported to have said to people at the White House, "Everything is negotiable, except getting a bill." What do you want?

And we found what the price of that was as we began to read the bill that we've now had for less than 24 hours, when the senator from Nebraska on page 98 of the bill gets his state specifically exempted from having to pay the increased Medicaid costs associated with bill.

So the rest of us, the good folks of Illinois and the good folks of Arizona, are going to be paying the $26 billion over the next 10 years for the increased Medicaid that the people in Nebraska won't have to pass.

(CROSSTALK)

STEPHANOPOULOS: ... can I just stop you there, because...

(CROSSTALK)

STEPHANOPOULOS: ... $100 million over 10 years, still a significant amount of money...

KYL: Yes, this -- this is $26 billion for the additional cost of coverage over 10 years, as my understanding is that's the number. I was born in Nebraska. I like Nebraska. And I agree...

STEPHANOPOULOS: But not that much?

KYL: No, I agree with Ben Nelson that the people of Nebraska shouldn't have to pay for it, but why should the people -- if it's not a good deal, if it's not a good deal for the people of Nebraska, why is it a good deal for all the other people in the country?

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me ask Senator...

KYL: It seems to me that you shouldn't be doing a bill and then try to exempt your own people from it, if it's such a great idea.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me ask Senator Durbin about that, because, you know, President Obama had made commitments on transparency. First he said he was going to have negotiations on C-SPAN. You had eight Senate Democrats sign a letter saying that the bill would have to be seen by the entire public for 72 hours. That's not going to happen. And then you've got this backroom deal for Senator Nelson, his state the only one that's going to get this $100 million permanent payment of Medicaid expenses.

DURBIN: George, that's not factual. The bill -- 2,000-page bill has been on the Internet for three weeks. In fact, it's on the Republican Senate Web site, because they don't have a bill.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But the manager's amendment...

(CROSSTALK)

DURBIN: The manager's amendment went on the Internet yesterday. And it's not a complete rewrite. It's 383 pages to 2,000, and it changes some sections, for sure, but the -- the amendment was put on the Internet yesterday. It will be on the Internet 72 hours before we take a vote, virtually 72 hours before we take a vote Tuesday morning.

So there can't be any complaint that it's not there for the world to see, and it was read yesterday on the Senate floor, and I sat there and read the bill as it was read.

As for the particulars, the fact is, when it comes to Medicaid, this expansion of Medicaid for 15 million people, we protect all the states for a few years. There's no question about it. I don't know what the...

STEPHANOPOULOS: But Nebraska is permanent.

DURBIN: Well, I can tell you that whether or not Nebraska is permanent or not, I can't say. I haven't -- I can't -- I wasn't...

(CROSSTALK)

DURBIN: ... that's what's been reported. But I will leave it for those who -- who wrote it.

I will say this much: Yesterday was a breakthrough day when Senator Nelson announced his support. And we have to look at the positive side of this thing. For once, we're able to say to the American people: We're going to help you make health insurance more affordable.

Just 10 years ago, a health insurance policy for a family of four through the place they work cost $6,000 on average for an annual premium. Today, it's $12,000, 10 years later. In eight years, it will be $24,000. People have a right to be skeptical as to whether the cost is going to come down, but the Congressional Budget Office reported to us, based on our new amendment, that we are going to bring the cost of government down dramatically.

We are going to bring the deficit down $130 billion in the first 10 years, and they said -- I hope Jon will acknowledge this -- they said last night this new amendment means that the deficit in the second 10 years will come down up to $1.3 trillion...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me ask Senator Kyl about that...

(CROSSTALK)

DURBIN: ... $1.3 trillion.

STEPHANOPOULOS: ... because it is -- it is significant. The Congressional Budget Office, non-partial, has done -- made a lot of rulings that Democrats don't like, says this bill is going to cover 30 million people, in the second 10 years, over $1 trillion reduction in the deficit. Why isn't that a good deal?

KYL: First of all, there's still 20 million people not covered. The Congressional Budget Office made it clear that all of the things that are asserted in this legislation have to -- have to happen, and they expressed significant doubt as to whether they would in order to achieve the savings.

Now, $130 billion over 10 years is the alleged savings. That's the same amount of the budget deficit last October, for the month of -- of October. So if you want to cut $130 billion out of 10 years of spending, just don't have the budget deficit we had last October. It's not that much.

But how do you achieve the deficit savings? By massively increasing taxes on the American people, by cutting Medicare by $500 billion. I can -- I mean, if you just give me a pen and say, "How much do you want to increase taxes in order not to have a budget deficit?" I can theoretically increase them all the way up, and then you won't have a budget deficit. But what does that do to American families?

And to the matter of premiums, the Congressional Budget Office itself says premiums are not going to go down under this legislation. In fact, if you're in the individual market, they're going to go up between 10 percent and 13 percent for families.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Durbin, Senator Kyl makes an important point when he says the Congressional Budget Office expresses some doubt over whether or not the savings are really going to be achieved. Can you and the Democrats commit to saying that if these Medicare savings are not achieved, we will slow down the expansion?

DURBIN: Listen, the bottom line is that there has not been a single bill introduced in the history of Congress that reduces the deficit this much. My colleague and friend, Jon, makes it sound easy to cut $130 billion. He's never proposed that, that I know of. We certainly haven't had a proposal for $1.3 trillion in savings on our deficit.

When it comes to the actual reduction in cost, we are putting in place thing that I think will dramatically change insurance in America...

(CROSSTALK)

STEPHANOPOULOS: But if they don't, will you commit to scaling back the program?

DURBIN: We have to -- we have to commit to saving money in the program. George, there are situations now where the same medical procedure for a Medicare recipient in Rochester, Minnesota, at Mayo costs one-half what it costs in Miami, Florida. Why? We have to bring into this system the kind of efficiencies people want to see without sacrificing quality. It isn't just a matter of lopping off benefits. We can provide benefits in a more quality, cost-effective way, making insurance more affordable for all families, and expand the reach.

Jon criticizes this because we didn't catch all 50 million uninsured. Ninety-four percent of Americans will have health insurance under this bill, the largest percentage of Americans with health insurance coverage in our history. This is dramatic.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Kyl, let me ask you what appears to be the thorniest issue in these negotiations, or up until the last moment, the issue of abortion. You just heard Senator -- I mean, David Axelrod say that the compromise reached yesterday is faithful to the commitment not to have federal funds pay for abortion. Do you agree with that?

KYL: No, I don't. And I think the Catholic bishops and the Right to Life organization are correct. For the first time in 30 years, other people in the country would be paying taxes which would support the subsidies for people in the insurance exchanges who could then buy coverage for abortion.

There's a state opt-out, but if you -- if your state opts out, you're still paying the taxes that will support the subsidies for those who do buy abortion coverage, and that breaks a deal that we've had for a long time, which is, neither side is going to persuade the other that they're correct, so we'll just call a truce and make sure that no federal funding is used to -- to pay for abortion. That's broken here. And I do hope that the House of Representatives who insisted on the correct language will continue to do that throughout the conference process.

DURBIN: What we agreed to yesterday, with Senator Nelson, is a clear allocation where those who buy an insurance policy with abortion coverage who also receive a federal tax credit will be required to make a separate payment each month, so it's clear delineation. No federal funds will be used, as we've said under the Hyde amendment, for paying for abortion, clear delineation.

And, frankly, this shouldn't be the forum for the debate on abortion. We should...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Are you confident you can sell this to the pro-choice forces in the House? Two of the leaders of the pro-choice forces in the House have said this may be unconstitutional.

DURBIN: The fact is, as you noted earlier, both sides are saying they don't like it. I think it is a reasonable middle course. Are we going to stop the issue of finding stability and security on health insurance in America? Are we going to give up on 30 million Americans having health insurance coverage? Are we going to give up on the protections that people need so they can have a fighting change against health insurance companies because we want to re-litigate the abortion issue?

Let's stick with the Hyde amendment basic principle. Let's delineate the payments as we do every day. For instance, if we sent a federal check to a Catholic school in the District of Columbia and said, "Don't use it for religious purposes," they said it won't be. It will be used for the purposes the federal government sent us the money for.

STEPHANOPOULOS: We're just about out of time. I want to ask you both a final question coming out of the Copenhagen conference. Implicit in the president's appearance there is the idea that the Senate would pass the cap-and-trade legislation this year. Are you prepared to say right now that Democrats are going to pass it in 2010? Or is it time to take a breather?

DURBIN: Of course everyone wants a breather. We'd love to be home with our families for Christmas. But the fact is, we have a responsibility to deal with this issue. We have to acknowledge the obvious. China, one of our great competitors in the world, is taking the green leap forward, as they say. They are committing themselves to this new energy-efficient economy, and they are building companies even in the United States that will make those products. Will the United States stand by the sidelines or will we be part of this leap forward? I don't want to lose those jobs.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So that's a yes?

DURBIN: Well, we're going to move forward on it. I hope we can get it done this coming year.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You get the last word.

KYL: Well, we pointed out that the president -- neither the president nor the secretary of state can go to Copenhagen and make commitments about $100 billion a year or $30 billion a year, whatever the amount is, without Senate confirmation or ratification of such a treaty. And as a result, the Senate will have to act on this, and there is not the support right now for that.

My guess is, if it came to the Senate today, you'd have even a majority of Democrats not willing to support American taxpayer money going to these countries. As -- as one wag (ph) put it -- and, by the way, China is among those group of countries that would be eligible, and so you borrow the money from China and then give the money to China. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Gentlemen, thank you both very much. Hope you get home for Christmas.

DURBIN: I hope so, too.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The roundtable is next with George Will, Cokie Roberts, Sam Donaldson, and Donna Brazile.

And later, the Sunday funnies.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GIBSON: This is my last broadcast in this chair. And it's hard to walk away from what I honestly think is the best job in the world, but my parents taught me you should understay, not overstay your welcome.

I thank you for investing trust in us each evening, trust that we will give you as objective and honest a look at the day's news as we possibly can.

Objectivity is not universally in favor in our business these days, but it is critically important. It is what we strive for each night.

I'm Charlie Gibson, and I hope you've had a good day. I've had so many good days here. For all of us at ABC News, have a great weekend and a joyous holiday season.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHANOPOULOS: Charlie Gibson says farewell. Diane Sawyer starts tomorrow on "World News."

The roundtable starts right now. I am joined, as always, by George Will, Donna Brazile, Sam Donaldson, and Cokie Roberts. We'll talk a little bit about Charlie later, but, George, let's get back to health care.

You watch this debate, and it's clear that both sides are -- are all in. Democrats, David Axelrod says, even though it's unpopular now, it's going to be popular later. Republicans, including our friend, Matthew Dowd, he wrote this week, said this is going to be a catastrophic success for the Democrats, likening it to George W. Bush on Iraq, initial victory, long-term calamity. Who's right?

WILL: I believe the Republicans are. Let's look at some numbers. NBC-Wall Street Journal poll says 32 percent of the country, that's all that approves of this. Washington Post says 30 percent -- that's all -- only 30 percent of independents support. Arkansas, 32 percent. North Dakota, 28 percent in North Dakota support it. Sixty-seven percent of Nebraskans against it. Why else, George, did Senator Reid have to use the entire taxing and borrowing power of the federal government, plus a glorious absence of principle, to cobble together 60 votes, including, as we just heard here, 49 states shall have this burden, Nebraska won't?

ROBERTS: I think the Democrats lost control of the argument and of the message. And -- and that's why the polls are as they are. If anybody actually looked at this bill -- which has not been easy to do, but now you can -- you would see, if you are someone who is dissatisfied with the insurance that you're getting now or not getting any insurance now, you would see a bill that -- that is basically a federal framework for health insurance for everybody for the first time ever and that will be basically a $1 trillion health bill that a lot of people are going to like a whole lot once they see what's in it. But -- and for the first time...

STEPHANOPOULOS: The question is, can they wait that long?

ROBERTS: ... it's got some long-term care in it, which everybody is desperate for, as the population gets older. It's paid for, totally paid for long-term care insurance. So I think that there's a lot in this bill that people are going to like; it's just a question of understanding it. And the Democrats should have been getting that out there more.

DONALDSON: I think, George Will, you're right, if, in fact, the bill that I conceive is going to come out of the conference committee -- and I think will pass -- is in stone, and that is the health care bill from here on. But that's not...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Which part is he right about?

DONALDSON: Well, he's right that, in fact, it probably would be a terrible mistake. But without taking that step, a quotation that you love from Napoleon, I think, is right, also. If you start to take Vienna, take Vienna. Then worry about how to administer the city later. Actually, he took it without firing a shot the first time. But the point is -- they did. I mean, two branch marshals took the bridge and all that.

(LAUGHTER)

This step in passing a bill now is a first step. No, these provisions will be changed, I hope, I trust, in the years ahead, but without the first step, we're never going to have a bill which covers people and begins the process of reducing the cost.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Donna, the question is going to be for a lot of progressives in the House, does that argument sell? Is this worth it after the -- a lot of the things they love, like the public option, have been dropped? And you've already seen the -- the liberal group, MoveOn.org, is taking off after it, especially taking on Joe Lieberman. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(UNKNOWN): I want a pony. And I'd like to be four inches taller.

(UNKNOWN): Joe, I'm not sure we can actually make you taller.

(UNKNOWN): Do -- do you really want health care reform to fail? I do.

(UNKNOWN): I've got some high heels.

(UNKNOWN): We'll find a way to make you taller, Joe.

(UNKNOWN): Consider it done.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHANOPOULOS: And that psychology -- and we're laughing now -- but it's made a lot of Democrats in the House and the Senate livid, the fact that these senators will hold up the bill, get whatever they want.

BRAZILE: Well, I believe that many progressives, liberals are disappointed because we wanted a single-payer, and that was taken off the table. Then we all got our appetite up for the public option, and then that was -- that disappeared in the Senate. And then, of course, the Medicare buy-in, that was somehow removed, as well. And now we're left with the insurance reforms. We're left with arguing that this will lower the deficit, lower premiums, save lives. So, overall, I think...

DONALDSON: What's wrong with that argument?

ROBERTS: That all sounds pretty good.

DONALDSON: Excuse me.

BRAZILE: Look, I'm from New Orleans. I was about to say a little bit of love and a six-pack would be nice (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

So -- but -- but the truth is, is that there is a lot of good stuff in this bill. There's a lot to celebrate. And seven presidents have tried, seven presidents have failed. This president will sign a health care bill. It will not be everything that the liberals or the progressives wanted. I'm sure the conservatives will also scream about it. But the truth is, it will lower costs, it will help individual families...

(CROSSTALK)

STEPHANOPOULOS: So let me just press that for a second.

ROBERTS: If Ted Kennedy were here -- and Vicki Kennedy wrote a wonderful piece, to -- this came out today, sort of saying this. You wouldn't be hearing all of this. It would be his voice, not Howard Dean's voice...

(CROSSTALK)

STEPHANOPOULOS: He would be saying, "Take it."

ROBERTS: Saying, "Take it," for -- that's what I'm saying. You wouldn't be hearing this from the, quote, unquote, "progressives." You would be hearing Teddy Kennedy say, "This is a tremendous step forward. For Heaven's sake, don't stop here."

DONALDSON: Howard Dean is an affirmation of the old saying, "Lord, I can take care of my enemies, but protect me from my friends." I mean, for him to say, "Let's bring the bill down and start over," start over when? Long after I'm gone, and I hope my children could be old enough to benefit then.

ROBERTS: I have a...

STEPHANOPOULOS: If you add up everything they're saying, George Will, does this mean that the House is basically just going to have to swallow what the Senate has passed?

WILL: That's why it isn't over. There is institutional pride at stake here, and the House is being told, "Take this and swallow it whole," because having seen the trouble it took to get to 60 votes, this is probably the only bill that can get 60 Senate votes now.

Now, there are major differences in here. The House will reject the tax on the Cadillac programs, the expensive ones. The -- the Senate...

STEPHANOPOULOS: A hundred and seventy House members against it right now.

WILL: The Senate will -- is going to reject the -- the surtax on affluent Americans. Senator Nelson voted against both. I mean, against -- that's the heart of the bill. Bayh, Lincoln and Webb voted against one or the other. They have some explaining to do.

DONALDSON: But they'll make deals, just as they made deals to get to this point. The deal-making will continue...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: That's just what governing is all about.

DONALDSON: That's right.

ROBERTS: You're supposed to make deals. I mean, you know, I -- the person that I have really newfound respect for is Harry Reid, who has just kept this Senate in session relentlessly until they do this. And, you know, it reminded me of Jamie Whitten, the long-time chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, used to always say...

DONALDSON: Well...

ROBERTS: ... the only way the Senate can work is by unanimous consent or exhaustion. And he is exhausting them into passing the bill.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But, Donna, the -- the issue that may not be susceptible to a final deal is this issue of abortion. It's hard to believe that a -- that a -- that a piece of legislation this large, this significant could come -- could come down to the final issue being abortion. There is a deal right now in the Senate, but you see it taking fire from all sides. And I was struck -- and I asked Senator Durbin about this -- pro-choice forces in the House saying it may be unconstitutional. If they believe that and vote on it, this deal goes down.

BRAZILE: You know, when you have Barbara Boxer in a room, and she's representing the views, I believe, of many pro-choice Americans, you have to come away thinking, "Well, this -- this -- this should be OK." The reason why it may not be OK, George, is if you're a woman out there, using your own private funds, not subsidized by the government, but you're in the exchange because you own a small business, you're an individual self-employed, you have to write two private checks, two checks, one for your regular coverage and another one for abortion rider. It just makes no sense.

I understand the firewall. I understand why you have to segregate funds. That's what many of the women will -- I mean, many of the pro-choice Democratic leaders in the House will argue and say, "That's unconstitutional." There will be other problems, but by and large, I don't believe at the end of the day abortion will be the -- the hanging -- I think it's going to be the taxes, not abortion.

(CROSSTALK)

DONALDSON: The Republican position is very interesting. The Republican -- it's true that their party, though, the Republicans oppose Social Security, they opposed Medicare. I was there for the Medicare vote. But there's a difference. In the end, in both instances, on final passage, Republicans came in quite substantial numbers to vote for the bill. You get the impression this time that they have set their political agenda and that they're not going to do that.

ROBERTS: Well, they're not. I mean, that's the case. But the -- but...

DONALDSON: What would it say if the entire Republican Party as represented on Capitol Hill, which may not be the entire Republican Party yet, says, "Absolutely no"? I mean, "It's either rule or ruin, my way or no way"?

WILL: Let me get this straight. You're saying, why are the Republicans opposing this deeply unpopular bill?

DONALDSON: No, what I'm saying is...

(CROSSTALK)

WILL: ... would you?

DONALDSON: What I'm -- what I'm saying is that Congress works this way, in that you fight for what you believe in or whatever reason you want to fight. But at the end of the day, to move things forward, Everett McKinley Dirksen, who's my idea of a Republican leader, opposed things in the '60s I covered, civil rights bill of '64 and the voting rights bill, until he'd gotten all the concessions he could, and then swung behind the bill, because it was good for the country.

WILL: It depends on what you consider forward, Sam.

DONALDSON: Well, as I've already positioned myself here, forward is passing a bill which doesn't achieve everything that people...

(CROSSTALK)

WILL: Everything? Everything -- wait, wait. The president's brought the -- the Democrats...

(CROSSTALK)

DONALDSON: You heard Donna's litany. Do you want me to repeat?

WILL: No, God, no. Once is enough.

(CROSSTALK)

WILL: The president said this is to solve the problems the American people face. It doesn't solve the problem of the uninsured. Twenty-four million will remain uninsured.

ROBERTS: A third of whom are illegal. A third of whom are illegal.

WILL: But I thought they were part of the problem.

ROBERTS: I mean, this is -- this is one of the things that, you know, that you can...

(CROSSTALK)

DONALDSON: Well, no.

ROBERTS: ... say you can't cover them, so let's just take that off the table. I think the Republicans in the long run are making a mistake here, that right now, this bill is unpopular. I suspect it will end up eventually -- it's not going to happen right away, but eventually it will be popular, and that they will look like obstructionists.

And the other thing that's totally true right now is that on any question in these polls where the president is not doing so well, they're doing half as well. People saying, on any issue, who do you trust more, the Democrats or the Republicans? The Republicans are...

(CROSSTALK)

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, that's -- that's true, except the Republicans in our last poll this week are at least closing the gap on that a little bit. And for the first time, we've seen the percentage of people who call themselves Republicans in the country rising, first time in years...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: But -- but -- but it had dropped precipitously.

STEPHANOPOULOS: It -- it -- it had.

DONALDSON: But I think the Republicans are going to do very well this coming November, the recession mainly.

ROBERTS: Oh, I agree.

DONALDSON: Although we appear to be coming out of it, it won't be in time for all the people to go back to work who've lost their jobs. And perhaps the bill, in the short run, perhaps Afghanistan, I hope it's in the short run, but maybe longer. But in -- in...

(CROSSTALK)

DONALDSON: In the coming years, I agree with Cokie. It's going to rebound against them.

BRAZILE: You're just betting against the Democrats. I mean, the American people, they've already fired the Republicans in '06 and '08. I don't believe that they will fire Democrats if Democrats prove that they can once again put jobs back on the table, have a health care plan that will begin to lower their premiums, that take away all of these abuses of insurance companies, including discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions...

DONALDSON: But, Donna, the proof, as Cokie just said, may be down the road. I'm talking about next November.

(CROSSTALK)

BRAZILE: I think that's the goal. The Democrats are trying to find some -- some early -- some low-hanging fruit so that people can go home feeling good about this bill.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But, Donna, that -- that -- that may be, but there may be precious little the Democrats can do to stop a bloodbath next November, if unemployment is still at about 10 percent, and I wonder, though, if that actually -- and I want to bring this to George Will -- if that actually validates the president's strategy, do everything in the first year, knock it all out, knock out the economy, the stimulus bill, the financial regulation, get health care done, because he is going -- he has a good shot of losing the House next year. This is his best chance.

WILL: He has read the Reagan presidency. Ronald Reagan came in and said, We have to get the economy going again, big tax cuts, stick with Paul Volcker and support his strict money policies that brought unemployment up, but killed inflation. His presidency -- his first term was set at the end of 1981. And he said, "Well, see -- see if it worked." And it turns out, it did.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The economy came back, Ronald Reagan came back.

WILL: And he carried 49 states.

ROBERTS: And he also had -- after -- but there was the midterm election in '82, where he lost 26 seats in the House and 4 in the Senate.

WILL: Correct.

ROBERTS: So I think...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes, but that's what I'm saying. He sacrificed...

ROBERTS: Exactly right. And -- and I think that what we really did see probably in 2008 was a 1980 election, which is a realignment election. We won't know until 2012, but that's my guess.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The question is, will he have Ronald Reagan's economy for the next two or three years? Another ABC poll this week, 60 percent of the country doesn't believe so; 61 percent of Americans saying we are in long-term economic decline.

Sam, if -- if they are right, then the Reagan model doesn't -- doesn't hold. But this is -- this is pretty significant, a good 20 points higher than it was 10 years ago.

DONALDSON: Yes, but, George, these polls measure at the moment how people feel. I mean, are we in the right -- are we going the right direction, going the wrong direction? Am I optimistic? And that changes.

If we are coming out of the recession and if by 2012 enough people are going back to work, when Reagan was re-elected, we still had, I think, about a 9 percent unemployment rate, maybe a little over 8 percent to 9 percent, but it had come down from 10.8 percent. So all this president has to be in a position to say, "It's coming down. We are coming up. And it's morning in America again."

ROBERTS: It's morning in America.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Donna, what can Democrats do to hold down losses in November? We've already seen in the last couple of weeks four senior House Democrats say they're going to retire. If you get up into double digits on retirements, that increases the chance of a turnover.

BRAZILE: Well, George, I -- and if you go back to 1994, when we had a significant number of Democrats retiring right after Bill Clinton's first term, it was a very difficult election because we could not hold those swing districts.

Of the 11 retirements that you're looking at in the Democratic Party right now, 7 are in real competitive swing districts. So if we can continue to hold that number down, the losses may not be as great as, say, what we experienced back in 1994.

But I think the Democrats -- when you look at what they've accomplished, credit card reform, mortgage reform, of course, the stimulus, we need to do a better job of explaining to the American people exactly how we're spending their money and how this will help people on Main Street. It seems like what we're saying every day is that, "We just passed 3162! We just passed 3144!" Nobody knows what the -- what this means.

DONALDSON: George -- George, if I...

BRAZILE: How does it impact their lives? How is it bringing food on their table?

ROBERTS: But, you know, George, also, the Democrats are basically at the high water mark. They've got the seats that they're going to have and a lot of seats that they shouldn't have, in terms of who's in the district.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I think that's right.

ROBERTS: So they're going to have a hard time.

STEPHANOPOULOS: George, if I heard Dick Durbin correctly, I think one of the things the Democrats don't seem like they're going to do is push very hard on this cap and trade, climate change legislation.

WILL: You think?

(LAUGHTER)

I think that's right. You know, very sort of symmetry here. The president got a health care bill that didn't have most of what his base wanted and most of what the people said going in they were going to get, went all the way to Copenhagen to get an agreement on the part of 198 nations to make a list, a list of their goals and their commitments. He was supposed to go there to get, A, a binding commitment on emissions for the developed world and climate reparations, transfers -- huge transfers of wealth to the under -- to the developing world. They got neither.

DONALDSON: Well, except for the nations, the big ones that finally came together with -- as you say, with -- with no real goals, but a commitment to think about it and perhaps, the others haven't sign on. They have noted that agreement. And noting that agreement is like the cowboy of the southwest who notes the rattlesnake before shooting it. Noting the agreement doesn't mean anything.

All you can say is there was a little baby step. Maybe it'll lead to something, but that's -- the spinning of that as a success for this administration is really difficult.

BRAZILE: But it was -- it was hard to go and say, "We need X and Y," when the Senate has not passed a bill. So the president, I believe, took very important steps and -- in outlining some aspirational goals that we will cut emissions by a date certain, with a little transparency, with some money, $30 billion, committed to helping the developing countries, but this was always a huge fight between the developing world and...

ROBERTS: But, Donna, your favorite part of this meeting was something else.

BRAZILE: Well, that's because, you know, I've heard that President Obama broke into a meeting, just walked into a room and...

STEPHANOPOULOS: With Premier Wen of China. Well, that's because Premier Wen was toying with him. He didn't -- he wouldn't agree to a meeting.

ROBERTS: But still.

BRAZILE: But can you imagine if the president did that here at home, just break into the Senate caucus room or the Democratic caucus and say, "I need X"?

WILL: Imagine if George W. Bush had done that.

(CROSSTALK)

WILL: It was a meeting -- it was a meeting of China, India and Brazil, and the president broke in, according to John Border of the New York Times, because the president said they should not be negotiating in secret. Now, this is the new modesty of American foreign policy.

DONALDSON: Well, unless he was part of the secret negotiation. You said a moment ago they need to do a better job of explaining things. I agree, beginning with the president. He said -- well, here are the number of times, dozens he's talked about health care reform. Last spring, he talked about it in a general sense, but this summer, when it came down to the actual cutting on Capitol Hill, he didn't try to herd those cats. He let those cats continue to try to herd themselves and let the Republicans in August, with their town meetings, take over the debate.

WILL: In 1972, the Rio conference begot Kyoto. Kyoto begot Copenhagen. Copenhagen begets Mexico City next year. And I just want to see the president turn to the country and say, "We're going to take $10 billion of your dollars and give it away because the planet's overheating."

STEPHANOPOULOS: We're just about out of time, just about a minute left. As I said at the top of this, Charlie Gibson's last "World News" broadcast was on Friday night. Cokie Roberts, you served with him ever since he covered Capitol Hill 30 years ago for ABC.

ROBERTS: And what joy he had in covering Capitol Hill. But, you know, the wonderful thing about Charlie is that he was the same person to everybody, so the guy with the mop in the hall is going to miss him as much as any one of us on the air. And presidents and -- and make-up ladies all the same with Charlie, and he's just a special person and a real reporter, and we're going to miss him.

DONALDSON: He was what the print reporters like to say, shoe-leather reporter. He actually worked. He actually went and talked to people. He actually dug up things to say, rather than just reading the newspapers. I admire Charlie for many, many reasons, but one is that he worked at the craft.

STEPHANOPOULOS: No question about it. And at his farewell the other night, Dr. Tim Johnson, our colleague, called him the beating heart of the news division. We are going to miss him. We welcome Diane Sawyer tomorrow.

This roundtable is going to continue in the green room. You can check it out later on abcnews.com. And be sure to tune in to "World News" tomorrow night for Diane Sawyer's exclusive interview with President Ahmadinejad of Iran.

END