EXCLUSIVE: Biden Says White House Getting Earful from Nervous Lawmakers Over Health Care

Biden tells ABC News health care bill will stem Democratic losses in November.

March 18, 2010, 4:58 PM

March 18, 2010 — -- Vice President Joe Biden said today that vulnerable members of Congress, worried that the health care reform legislation will cost them their jobs, have expressed their frustrations to the White House and have been critical of how the issue has played out over the last year.

"They say, 'Well Joe, look man, I mean, you know, you guys haven't messaged this very well,'" Biden told ABC News' Jake Tapper in an exclusive interview in Durham, N.C. "And, 'You know, this thing has gone on so long.'"

Biden said his response to worried lawmakers is simple: "The proof of the pudding is in the eating."

"I'm telling you, you know, pre-existing [conditions], they're going to be covered. You know we're going to control the insurance companies," the vice president said. "You know people aren't going to lose their health care with their employer like is being advertised."

Biden said once these provisions take effect and the American people feel the impact, lawmakers who vote "yes" will reap the benefits.

"They're going to see right off the bat the horrible [things] aren't real and there are some very good things that become apparent immediately," Biden said. "Once the American public realizes that ... [legislators are] going to be rewarded."

A 36-year veteran of the Senate, Biden said he was sympathetic to the position some lawmakers are now in.

"I really, truly believe that the worst place to be, as a legislator, is being in the position where your side is being pummeled for an idea and there's misrepresentations about all the bad things the idea is going to generate," Biden said.

His advice to wavering members of Congress who have put in work on this legislation is: "If you really want to make sure that you get the benefit of what you've already done, vote for the bill."

While four major deadlines have come and gone on health care reform, Biden said it's not a reflection of public appetite for the bill, but rather Republican antagonism.

"This has been tough from day one. It's been tough for 40 years," he said. "Republicans have been very skillful in using legitimately every tactic in the book -- legitimate tactic -- every procedural way to slow down the process to prevent an up-and-down vote. And we're getting close. They're running out of runway."

To the vice president, news that President Obama cancelled his trip to Indonesia and Australia next week is not another missed deadline or an ominous sign for the prospects of the bill on Capitol Hill.

"What it symbolizes is the president of the United States thinks this is an incredibly important initiative and he should be in the country, in the States, when, in fact, the Congress votes on it," Biden said.

While jobs and health care took the political center stage today, Biden also was briefed by State Department official Dennis Ross on the Middle East.

Biden said the United States and Israel need to "get over" the latest flare-up in tensions and insisted that the essential elements of the relationship between the two nations remain the same.

"Israel's security is undeniably in our interest to make sure it is absolutely secure," the vice president said.

Biden called the Israeli announcement of new settlements last week "provocative" and said it was "obviously designed by some in Israel to undermine a peace process George Mitchell finally got -- our negotiator -- finally got back on track."

"And so the message is: We've got to get over this," Biden said. "Granted, I condemn the announcement made by that planning council. ... The irony is even that planning council acknowledging not a single new unit can be built at least for a year and maybe never will be built, it was provocative."

Biden denied a report that said he told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel's position on settlements puts U.S. troops at risk.

"No, I never said that," the vice president said.

Biden Optimistic on Democrats' Electoral Prospects

At home, Biden thinks the Democratic Party's electoral prospects in this year's midterm elections are not as dire as the conventional wisdom holds because Democrats will check off several big-ticket agenda items over the next eight months.

"I think they're going to be a heck of a lot less than all of you think," Biden said.

The vice president candidly acknowledged, though, the historic downward trends for the party that holds the White House in a midterm election year.

"I think you're going to suffer traditional losses that occur in an off year," he said.

Biden said there were three key reasons he was optimistic about the Democrats chances in November -- Iraq, job creation and health care.

"I think we're going to see significant success in Iraq with 90,000 troops home," Biden said, referring to a planned drawdown by August.

Biden reiterated the White House's forecast that job creation will kick in over the next several months, with 100,000 to 200,000 new jobs each month by the time of the midterms.

To highlight the administration's efforts to create green jobs, Biden traveled to Durham, N.C., today and toured a manufacturing plant that benefitted from the stimulus bill.

Biden, who's become the president's point man on the middle class and who is overseeing the Middle-Class Task Force and the administration's Recovery Act, said the nation's largest banks are not doing enough for the American people.

He said the Obama administration is trying to focus on small community banks to encourage lending and jump start the economy on Main Street.

"You've got to give the banks, the small banks, the capital to be able to lend ... to get themselves in the position where they feel secure they can lend to you," Biden said. "We've got to jump start the economy. But you know, it's hard. When you don't have a job, man, when you don't have a job, it's a depression."

Biden Lobbying Wavering Democrats

Earlier today, Biden said he was "optimistic" about the prospects of health care legislation passing and said he was going to spend time today on the phone lobbying wavering Democratic members of Congress to support health care reform.

"When I'm not with you," the vice president joked to Tapper as he prepared to board Air Force Two for the flight to North Carolina, "I'm gonna be in that cabin" on the phone.

Catholic Democrats, who oppose abortion, are among the lawmakers that the vice president's been targeting. Biden said he's assuring them that the principle of the Hyde Amendment, which says that federal dollars should not be used to pay for abortions, is embedded in the bill.

"The principle is intact," Biden said. "And so I'm confident even the bishops, once this bill is passed and see how it operates, are not going to have the concern any longer."

Today, the Congressional Budget Office said that the current House package would cost $940 billion over 10 years but cut the deficit by $138 billion in that time -- numbers the vice president was pleased about.

"I feel optimistic about it, I really do," he said. "We got a great number back from the Congressional Budget Office."

Biden said the CBO's estimate would be key to winning the support of wavering conservative Democrats who had concerns about the costs of the legislation.

"That's great news, and I think that frees up a lot of guys who were going, 'I don't know, I don't know if this is really gonna be saving," Biden said of the fiscally conservative, so-called Blue Dog Democrats. "So I feel good."

Another thing the vice president feels good about is the ability to be proactive in his new gig.

"As a senator, all you get to do is react actually. And as vice president, the president did give me some significant responsibility. And the thing I love about him is he says, 'Joe, do it,' and he never comes back and looks over my shoulder. Just do it, whether it's Iraq or Recovery Act or the Middle-Class Task Force," Biden said. "That's the best part of the job."

Biden: 'He's Accepted Me, Warts and All'

Biden said that's not the only thing he loves about his boss -- adding that he's learned a lot about Obama during their time in the White House.

"The greatest thing about him, the guy's got a backbone of steel," Biden said. "I didn't know it when he was a senator. I watched him. He was smart as hell. He was on my committee for four years. But watching him act under pressure, this is a guy who makes a decision and he moves on. ... The thing I like best, I get to give the advice. He's got to make the decision."

Biden admitted he once may have pondered the difference in age and Senate seniority between himself and candidate Obama, but that's all over now.

And then there's Biden's trademark ebullience and tendency sometimes to say things in ways that can attract unintended headlines.

"He and I are almost the exact same on all the issues," Biden said. "So ideologically, it worked. But I think it took a while for him to, I think, maybe get comfortable with my style. But I think we're there. He's accepted me, warts and all."

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