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Amid Health Care Debate, Legislative Group Seeks To Foster Bipartisanship


We're going to start today with the issue that affects millions of Americans from all walks of life, has an enormous impact on the economy and has bedeviled our political leadership for years. That issue is health care.


MITCH MCCONNELL: The American people deserve better than the pain of Obamacare.

BERNIE SANDERS: Virtually all of the major health care groups are saying that this legislation would be a disaster.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I am sitting in the Oval Office with a pen in hand waiting for our senators to give it to me.

RAND PAUL: I just can't vote for a bill that creates a $200 billion fund to bail out insurance companies.

SUSAN COLLINS: I still am a no unless the bill is dramatically changed.

MARTIN: That was Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine. You also heard Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and some others who've spoken out over the past few days, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who, of course, ran for president last year as a Democrat, President Trump and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, also a Republican. All with a different take and all talking about the latest version of the proposal to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. It was drafted by Republicans in the Senate and released on Thursday. An earlier version of the bill also drafted by Senate Republicans didn't have enough support among Republicans to bring to a vote.

So now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has delayed the Senate's recess by two weeks so that members can continue to work on it. But even though Republicans are having trouble writing a bill that their own caucus can support, congressional Democrats have not yet been invited to participate. And it shows you that health care in Washington is as partisan as it gets. Still, there are members of Congress who are trying to work across party lines.

One such effort is the Congressional Problem Solvers Caucus. That's a bipartisan group whose members say they're committed to working as a voting bloc to focus on solving problems for the country. They were inspired by the outside group called No Labels, which is comprised of both lawmakers and former lawmakers who say they want to move past partisan politics. Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey is a Democrat. Representative Tom Reed of New York is a Republican. And the two men co-chair the Problem Solvers Caucus. And they were nice enough to join us from Capitol Hill. Gentlemen, thank you so much for speaking with us.

TOM REED: Well, thank you for having us on.

JOSH GOTTHEIMER: Thanks. Great to be here.

MARTIN: So let me just start by asking each of you, and I recognize that the action is over on the Senate at the moment, but assuming a bill does happen, it'll come to you. So I wanted to ask each of you - maybe Representative Reed, maybe you'll start - what's your North Star when it comes to this problem?

REED: Well, the North Star to me is that we cannot do nothing. We have to take on the issue of health care. We're going to have to deal with the collapsing markets. We're going to have to deal with the ever increasing health care costs and address health insurance access. So from my perspective, and one of the things maybe the Problem Solvers Caucus - we've had - started a conversation, if the Senate bill doesn't go forward, is there a role we can play as a caucus and take a position to support some legislation that is going to fix the problems with the health insurance markets and ultimately and then long term get into the discussion of health care cost containment?

MARTIN: Congressman Gottheimer, what's your North Star when it comes to this issue?

GOTTHEIMER: Well, my North Star is actually making sure that we have a piece of legislation that actually improves health care. And, you know, my concern and I am - there are plenty of places where we need to fix the ACA, but we need to do it together. And so yesterday, we had a very good meeting with 20 or so members of Congress sitting around a table talking about if the Senate bill fails, how do we actually do what should have been done in the beginning, which is work together to fix the ACA and to make it better and to improve health care?

And I think what I heard around the table, which was really - I'll tell you, the kind of meeting that we should be having which is instead of starting with a position of no, saying OK, there are things to fix. President Obama made it clear in his last weeks that he said there are places to fix. But now, what are the solutions, and what they look like? And it needs to be done in a bipartisan way. You can't just jam people with it. So this, to me, gave me hope for doing it the right way.

MARTIN: To my understanding, the Problem Solvers Caucus has not taken up health care specifically as a project - you know what I mean? - in a formal way.


MARTIN: I know each of you have met with your own constituents about, and you certainly talk about it informally, but you haven't taken it up as a kind of a project for yourselves. Why is that?

GOTTHEIMER: That's completely correct. We when the caucus, we were just pulling everyone together. It was the beginning. And we had not taken it up. But yesterday was the first day we sat down and said, this looks like it's not going to happen. And now's the opportunity for us potentially to say, where can we find common ground? Because most people around on the table - I think everyone around the table - said, yeah this is not perfect. They say it needs to be fixed.

MARTIN: Representative Reed, do you want to pick up the thread on that? I mean, did you - and not to put you on the spot, but as a Republican, do you wish that Democrats had been invited to participate in writing this bill at this juncture? Or is this just something you feel Republicans had to just go through?

REED: Well, I think when we started the process this session, I think it became obvious it was going to be a Democrat-Republican divide, shirt-skins type of approach to it. And obviously, I don't come from that school of thought. I try to find areas where we can find common ground and advance a legislative agenda where you've got Democrats, Republicans working together because if you look historically, if the Affordable Care Act had done - and maybe start there - had been done with Democrat, Republican input coming up with a solution for health care, maybe we'd be in a different situation today. Where if you look historically on tax reform in the '80s, welfare reform, those were generational, transformational reforms that were bipartisan and withstood the test of time.

So I think where we saw an opportunity yesterday - and this was a somewhat organic conversation at our regular meeting - where the members on both sides of the aisle said, you know what? If this collapses in the Senate, we have to do something. You have 2 million Americans today suffering from these collapsing marketplaces. You have real people who are bearing these brunts of the issues in the health insurance market. So I was very inspired by the members, by the Caucus members themselves stepping forward, saying, we need to do some things in order to stabilize this marketplace. Let's work together. Where can we come up with a solution? And I'm optimistic maybe if this does go down on Tuesday in the Senate that we be in a position to see if there is a recommendation we can make to the entire caucus - Democrats, Republicans - to suggest a position we could take in this matter.

MARTIN: I heard that little dig at the way that the Affordable Care Act was put together. Basically, the other guy started it, right? So I heard that, but...

REED: Well, yeah. And that's where I've also been in my position on ways and means. I've been in the position of advocating for us to do through tax reform on a bipartisan basis. We should learn the lessons of the Affordable Care Act. I don't think anyone - when I talk to folks who are serious legislators on the other side of the aisle who were here when they drafted the Affordable Care Act, they really didn't appreciate doing it on a partisan basis either.

MARTIN: Let me just jump in to say if you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Representative Tom Reed of New York. He's a Republican. And Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey. He is a Democrat. The two men chair the Problem Solvers Caucus. They're with us from Capitol Hill, and we're talking about whether there is a bipartisan way forward on health care and other issues. Just briefly on this, just the last point on this issue, has either of you had experience engaging your constituents on this issue that either gives you hope or gives you despair?

Now, I understand that, you know, Representative Reed, for example, that some of these constituent meetings have been a little rough of late for Republicans. And just to be fair, it mirrors the experiences that a lot of Democrats had back in 2010 during the Tea Party wave, when they would go home and get some - have a rough time. So Representative Reed, can I just ask you - and then Representative Gottheimer, I'll go to you obviously - Representative Reed, have you had any experiences lately that either give you hope or give you despair that you can get people together on this?

REED: Yeah, absolutely. At our town halls - and you may have seen some media reports on our town halls - they have been very passionate. Let's describe them that way. And what gives me hope is once we got through the screaming and the yelling and the name calling that many of the individuals at those meetings were doing towards me, we actually started some conversations.

Now, it took some time. It took some effort. But when we're doing four town halls a day, we were cutting through some of that rhetoric. And we were actually having a conversation with people about, what are you concerned about? Because there's real fear out there. And that gave me hope that, you know, we can cut through this rhetoric. We can - if you're willing to take the heat for a little bit, it's amazing how much you can get to that common ground if you're willing to really sincerely engage in it.

MARTIN: Representative Gottheimer, what about you? Are there - have you been engaging with your constituents over this issue and there's something that gives you hope, or is there something that puts you in despair that you can bridge this?

GOTTHEIMER: Well, I'll tell you, you know, most weeks when I'm in the district, I go to a diners 'cause I'm a Jersey guy, right? So we go we go to a different diner around the district and sit down and watch people come together. And I go table to table and talk to folks. And what I'm hearing consistently is that people are very concerned about the HCA. And that's been since the beginning. People have a lot of anxiety about this. And that's why I really think we need to frankly start over and do what's right with health care and make it better. And so that's what gives me hope about hopefully turning the page from this particular chapter and going on to the next one.

MARTIN: What do you say start over, do you mean that you could support repeal and replace as long as there is a replace?

GOTTHEIMER: I support a fix. And anyone will tell you, this thing is not perfect. And there are places that I know that I want to fix it. And I hear from people saying, I wish this were better or that were better. So that's what we should be doing, looking to how to improve it.

MARTIN: So what are some of the issues in the last couple of minutes that we have left? Are there issues as chairs - co-chairs of the Problem Solvers Caucus, are there areas in which you are finding that you can agree?

GOTTHEIMER: You know, we've been spending a lot of time on infrastructure and tax reform. We've got to deal with infrastructure in this country, the crumbling roads and bridges. And there is a lot of interest - bipartisan - in a bipartisan way to get something done and to get our taxes down. Tom, I don't know if you want to add to that.

REED: Well, and on top of that, Michel, remember, the Problem Solvers Caucus, we amended our bylaws as a caucus so that we're a voting bloc now. If we can get to this consensus position of 75 percent of us supporting the position we take, we will vote and give a way for our leadership to know where we stand so we could vote yes and solve these problems.

And we took a position like that in the government shutdown debate a few months back, when we said, keep all the ideological stuff out, we'll have a battle about the numbers. But if you keep the ideological stuff out, we will support that package. And that was our first success. And now we're looking at a budget cap position potentially to take, and also the debt ceiling is going to have to be addressed. And now, this opportunity with health care could be coming our way next week.

GOTTHEIMER: It's not easy, but you're never going to solve it unless you actually try.

MARTIN: That was Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey. He is a Democrat. Representative Tom Reed of New York is a Republican. They are the co-chairs of The Problem Solvers Caucus. And they were both kind enough to join us from Capitol Hill. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

REED: Well, thank you very much.

GOTTHEIMER: Great to be here. Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIGHTMARES ON WAX'S "EASE JIMI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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