Americans should not lose sight of the benefits of the pending health care reform bill by focusing on the back room deals made by lawmakers to vote in favor of the bill in exchange for favors for their states, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner told ABC News.
"I would say that you have to look at the outcome and what it does for the country as a whole," Geithner told George Stephanopoulos in an exclusive interview on ABC's "Good Morning America."
Earlier this week, the Senate version of the bill was assured passage after the final Democratic holdout, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, announced he would support the measure once his home state was granted extra Medicaid funds, prompting criticism that – in the words of Senate GOP Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – the bill was a "special deal-riddled package."
A final Senate vote on the legislation is expected Christmas Eve.
Asked by Stephanopoulos if this process was "the right way to do business," Geithner replied, "I do…The legislative process works in mysterious ways in our country, but you have to focus on what the outcomes are and this is a good, strong package of reforms, better than I think many people would have thought was possible a month ago, three months ago, six months ago, nine months ago."
The Treasury chief expressed confidence that lawmakers on Capitol Hill will successfully be able to reconcile the separate House and Senate measures.
"We're in a great position today, and these are strong bills," Geithner said. "There are some differences to be worked out, but there's a strong commitment on both sides to work out those differences."
Geithner was far less confident about Wall Street, noting that there are still some banks that do not understand the outrage across the country about the financial system's role in the current recession.
Wall Street Still Clueless?
"I don't think they get it. I think some banks do. I don't think all banks get it yet," Geithner said.
"They did a huge amount of damage to the country, lost a huge amount of trust and confidence," he noted. "They need to work very hard to restore that.
"They need to make sure they're doing everything they can to help people who can afford to stay in their homes stay in their homes, help make sure they are lending in communities that need access to credit, they're working very hard to make sure that viable businesses that face some increased demand for orders now for their products now can get the credit they need.
"They need to show some restraint and care in how they pay their people, and they need to be supportive of the kind of reforms we need to create a more stable system in the future."
Geithner: Health Care Bill Good for the Long Haul
Thus far, the push for financial regulatory reform has taken a back seat in Congress to health care reform – in part because the banks' lobbyists have so vigorously opposed it – but Geithner emphasized that reforms are coming, like it or not.
"We're not going to run a strategy to protect the country from future financial crises that rests on the hope that banks in the future behave more wisely and more nobly," he said. "We're going to run a strategy that requires reforms that are going to, going to restrain risk-taking, provide better protections for consumers."
One of the main targets of public outrage has been the controversial $700 billion Wall Street bailout, first enacted by the Bush administration and continued by President Obama. Earlier this month Geithner extended the bailout program until next October.
Even more than 15 months after the program started, critics still argue that the bailout helped Wall Street, but not Main Street.
Economy Growing 'Faster...Earlier Than We Would Have Thought'
"We're in a much better position today because the president was willing to do unpopular things quickly and early with very substantial force to fix this," Geithner said, citing that the bailout will cost taxpayers $200 billion less than first expected.
Just last month, Republicans at a Joint Economic Committee hearing called for Geithner to step down. The night before the hearing, a Democrat – Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon – also called for his ouster.
"I knew this was going to be very tough and difficult," Geithner said of his work, "but, you know, our job is to do what we think is necessary to help get the economy back on track.
"And what we did to help break the back of this financial panic was hugely effective at much lower cost than anybody expected."
As evidence of the success of the administration's work, Geithner pointed to recent economic improvements, such as the growth of the nation's gross domestic product during the third quarter.
"The policies that the president put in place, they are doing what they had to do, what they're supposed to do, and we have an economy that's growing again at a rate faster than we would have thought, earlier than we would have thought," Geithner said.
However, he warned that the nation will not see job growth in December, despite job losses slowing to only 11,000 last month. Job growth, he forecast, will possibly return before this spring.
"It's still a very tough economy," he said. "The crisis just caused a huge amount of damage to people's basic confidence in their economic future. You see that in business confidence, consumer confidence, too. But confidence is improving."
When job growth does resume, Geithner cautioned that "you can't be sure you're going to have a straight, steady path, because, again, this was a real mess and just a huge amount of damage was done, and it's going to take some time still to get out of this."
In the meantime, the administration has pushed Congress to launch a new jobs bill to put people back to work. While the administration's $787 billion stimulus approaches its second year, Geithner said that there is "a good case for modest, targeted set of measures now."
The financial bailout and the stimulus have both played a key role in sending the nation's budget deficit soaring to record levels -- $1.4 trillion for fiscal year 2009 – in the wake of the recession. Today, Geithner emphasized that once the recession is over, the president will turn his focus to bringing the country's fiscal house back into order.
"The president understands and we understand that for this economy to grow over time, people need to understand we will have to bring those deficits down," he said. "And we will start to do that once recovery is firmly established and we're confident the private sector can carry this forward and start to invest and create jobs.
"This is going to be a challenge for us, but this is something we can do," he continued. "And in many ways, we're in a better position to manage through these things than is true for other major -- and you see that in how investors are treating the United States today, because you see relative confidence really very high, despite the challenges we face."
Despite fears that some of the country's biggest foreign investors, such as China and Japan, would reduce their holdings of U.S. government debt, thus far, those fears have not materialized.
"No one is going to care more about this than the president and me," Geithner said. "We both understand deeply how important it is that Americans understand, investors understand around the world that we will have the will as a country to bring those deficits down when the economy is on a self-sustaining recovery.
"As the economy recovers, tax revenues will go up, we'll spend less on unemployment insurance, things like that," he noted. "That'll help bring the deficit down quite -- quite dramatically, but we'll have to do more things than just wait for recovery."
Asked if this would mean lower spending and higher taxes, the Treasury boss replied, "It'll have to bring…the resources and our commitments more into balance."
With the Christmas holiday just days away, Geithner told Stephanopoulos what is on his wish list.
"I think Americans should go into the holidays and into next year with more hope, with more hope about the future, because they can now -- and you see it in how they're behaving and acting," Geithner said.
"You can see now the beginnings of that process of healing, confidence gradually improving, and that's something we want to work very hard to reinforce."