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Obama Willing to Work with GOP on Health Care; Jobless Aid Restored

Aired March 03, 2010 - 13:00   ET


TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Time to hand over the keys to the mothership to that man. CNN NEWSROOM continues right now with Ali Velshi.

ALI VELSHI, CNN ANCHOR: Tony, it is so good to have you back. Welcome back into the fold. It's not the same without you.

I'm Ali Velshi, as Tony said, and for the next couple of hours I am going to break down every important topic we cover. We're going to try and give you a level of detail that's going to help you make important decisions about your voting, your spending, your safety, your security, and your health care. I've got my work cut out for me today.

Here's what I've got on the rundown this hour. President Obama makes his strongest push yet for Congress to pass health-care reform. He's got an olive branch for the GOP in one hand, and he has a mighty big stick in the other. We're going to give you everything you need to know to understand what is happening with health care.

Also on the rundown, just yesterday more than a million people couldn't get their jobless benefits extended. Today that has all changed. The benefits are back for another month, and the senator that blocked them has backed down. What just happened? Did Senator Bunning make his point? And how do we know we're not going to be having this same discussion 30 days from now?

Plus, I've seen all kinds of things on the Internet, but I couldn't believe this one. Chat Roulette. No logon needed, no identification, and no regulation in sight. If you haven't heard about it and you're a parent, you better listen up.

All right. Drawing a line in the sand on health-care reform. That's what's going to happen in about 45 minutes. President Obama is going to be making a speech from the White House. We will bring it to you live, with the best political team in television. Wolf Blitzer's going to join me throughout that speech with our team of analysts and experts to explain what is going on.

The president is expected to say that he's willing to include four Republican ideas in his overhaul of health care. If Republican lawmakers still refuse to go along, the Democrats will attempt to pass the bill on their own, in the Senate, with a process called reconciliation that requires only a simple majority vote. Now, the GOP ideas that the president is expected to -- to include are funding to explore alternatives to medical malpractice suits or tort reform; undercover investigations of Medicare and Medicaid fraud. Also, higher Medicaid reimbursements for doctors who accept Medicaid; and an option of high-deductible health plans along with health savings accounts. We're going to explain this all you to, so don't worry if you didn't take notes on that.

You'll recall that Mr. Obama laid down his own plan last Monday. Now, the highlights of that plan included coverage for 31 million uninsured Americans. It would also bar insurance companies from blocking coverage for pre-existing conditions, and allow the federal government to regulate insurance rate increases.

Now, under President Obama's plan, just about everybody would be required to buy insurance, or they'd pay a fine. It would also provide subsidies for lower-income households.

Now, as for employers, they wouldn't be required to offer insurance coverage, but companies that didn't offer insurance coverage of a certain side, with a certain number of employees, would be charged a fee. The president's plan would also be paid for by a tax on high-value policies. This is much further down the road, 2018, and higher Medicare taxes on wages, investments -- and investment income.

Now, the tax on those high-value policies would be made to the insurance companies, but obviously, they would likely pass that through to consumers, so that would mean higher premiums.

Anyway, we're going to break all of this down. I want to start first with our senior medical correspondent, Elizabeth Cohen, and our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger.

Let's just find out about the -- the things that the president is planning to do in the next hour.

Elizabeth, I'm going to just start with you. There are a couple of things that the Republicans and Democrats do agree on. In other words, he's going to get some -- some traction on this. Tell me what some of those are.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, I don't mean to sound like a health-care reform Pollyanna, but I will say that amidst all of this news about people disagreeing with each other from either side of the aisle, there is some common ground, and these are on pretty big things. So I'm going to be the Pollyanna who's going to point these things out.

There is some agreement that insurance companies should not be allowed to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions. Right now, for example, if you have a heart condition and you apply for insurance on your own, they're not going to give it to you. But there's some agreement that that should change.

Also some agreement that small businesses or individuals should be able to group together to form, in essence, sort of a large company of their own, which makes it is easier for them to purchase insurance.

And the third thing there's some agreement on, is that dependents should be able to stay, kids should be able to stay on their parents' insurance until their 26th birthday. Right now they often, you know, make you go as soon as you graduate from college or around age 22 or 23. So I think it's important to point out sort of that they're starting from some place of common ground.

VELSHI: All right, let's -- let me ask Gloria. Gloria, I want to show you a poll that we've taken, CNN/Opinion Research Corporation. We've taken a lot of polls on health care over the last little while.

This one is whether or not the government should require health insurance for all Americans. That's not the right one. We'll -- we'll get to that in a minute. Forty-five percent are in favor of requiring health insurance for all Americans. A small majority, 53 percent, are not in favor of it. I want to show you a second poll before I get your comment on it. This is whether there should be a public health insurance option administered by the federal government.

That's also not the right one, so let's get rid of that, and I'll just talk to Gloria about it.


VELSHI: Fifty-one percent of -- of respondents said that there should be a public option. Forty-eight percent say, no, there isn't going to be a public option in the one the president's talking about.

BORGER: Right. You know, I think the public was very clear from all of these polls that we've done -- and when you cut through them, it shows that the public believes that we ought to have some kind of health-care reform. That the current -- the current system is really unsustainable. The way it is.

But people are worried about what's going to be in this plan, because as Elizabeth points out, people really want to get this notion of pre-existing conditions sort of ironed out, both Republicans and Democrats.

But the big question here, and this is the big political question that remains, that they were unable to resolve last week, is if you're going to really take care of pre-existing conditions, then the White House believes you have to have everybody buy into these insurance pools.

VELSHI: Right. And the concept here is it's like hurricanes. It's like anything else. If there are going to be big payouts for people who get insurance...

BORGER: Right.

VELSHI: ... with pre-existing conditions, you've got to have more people without those conditions in there...

BORGER: Buying in. VELSHI: ... so that it makes it worth it for the insurance companies, because they still are for-profit companies.

BORGER: Exactly. And the Democrats and Republicans also disagree very heartily about the amount of regulation that the insurance companies ought to have.

So, when we listen to President Obama later today, yes, he incorporated these four or five ideas in his health-care legislation, but that is not going to be enough to get Republicans to sign onto it. Just isn't.

VELSHI: All right. We've got a lot to discuss here. There are a few things that the president has -- has included here. Some Republican talking points, if you will, or Republican ideas. I'm going to come back to you in just a moment, with more on this. Elizabeth Cohen and Gloria Borger will be with me.

We're also going to have live coverage of the president's biggest push yet to get health-care reform through Congress. If you haven't followed this closely, all of this time, today might be the day to start.

Stay with us. We're going to continue our live coverage in a moment.


VELSHI: All right. While this is the show I do every day, think of this as the pre-game, because in about 35 minutes we're going to hear President Obama's biggest push yet to try and get health-care reform done.

He put out his own plan a week ago, and then he had this health care summit, and now he says he's taken the Republicans' ideas, some of them, four of them to be specific, and he wants to try and wrap them into his ideas. He wants this to be seen as a compromise, but if it isn't, there's some underlying message there that he's going to do it himself.

Let's bring in Elizabeth Cohen again, our senior medical correspondent; CNN political analyst Gloria Borger.

Elizabeth, a couple of other points in the president's proposal. How big if a problem is Medicare and Medicaid fraud? Because he's talking about funding undercover -- undercover investigations into these things.

BORGER: Right. I mean, it's a huge problem. There are people out there who are just outright trying to defraud Medicare. They make up doctors' names or they steal doctors' names and bill millions of dollars of charges.

And the crazy thing is, they actually get paid and it's complete fraud. So recouping some of that money would help fund some of health-care reform. But, you know, from what people tell me, it's not going to fund a huge chunk of it, but it certainly will go towards increasing the coffers.

VELSHI: All right, Gloria, how much of a hint is the president going to make? Or is it not going to be hinted? Is he going to say, "This is the compromise. If you can't find it in yourselves to do it, to support this for Republicans, we're going to get it through the Senate"?

BORGER: Right. This isn't going to be subtle at all today. I think this is it. I was speaking with one senior White House adviser just before I came on the air, and he said, think of it this way. This is the last helicopter out of Saigon, OK?


BORGER: So, this means that, take it or leave it, this is your last chance to get on health care. They have clearly made the political decision, Ali, that doing something is much more important for them than failing. And they're not going to leave this sitting on the Senate floor. They're going to use that budget process to get this through with 51 votes in the Senate. And it is a calculation they made that in the end, when all the dust settles -- settles, when the public sees what they're getting in health-care reform, that they will like it more than they dislike it.

VELSHI: Speaking of what the public is getting, Elizabeth, one of the things the president is talking about is the health savings account. We have those. What's changing?

COHEN: Right. Right. We do have them, and so this gets a little bit confusing. A health savings account is where you can save money to pay for health-care expenditures, tax free. And here's the sort of the tangle here, is that you would use that if you have basically a not great health insurance policy.

VELSHI: Right.

COHEN: One with a huge deductible, like where you would have to spend, say, $1,000 of your own money before your own insurance would even pay a penny for you.

And a lot of people have said, these are not so useful. I mean, if you have to dish out your own money, even if you can save it tax free, this isn't good, and these have not been terribly popular options. But Republicans like them, and they would like the president to do more to -- to promote them and to have people use them.

VELSHI: OK. Elizabeth, thanks very much for that, Elizabeth Cohen, our senior medical correspondent.

Gloria Borger will be back with us. We've got the all-star team here, the best political team on television, starting when the president starts speaking. Just so you know who's coming on: Gloria will be here; Wolf Blitzer will be joining me to get us through the president's speech, David Gergen, Dana Bash, Ed Henry, and Roland Martin, all to determine what this means for the future of your health care. Now, when we come back, we're also going to talk about the future. Something has changed in the last 24 hours. Those unemployment benefit extensions have been granted. The stalemate in the Senate is over.

Christine Romans has been following this with me for the last three days. She's standing by to tell us what this means and what has changed about the way the government spends money when we come back.


VELSHI: Health care's the big story today, but the big news for hundreds of thousands of unemployed Americans is a break in a Senate logjam that we've been following very closely for the last few days. It was a logjam created by this man, one man, Republican Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky, former Hall of Famer, a baseball pitcher.

He had refused for days to grant something called unanimous consent to a one-month extension of federal unemployment benefits.

Democrats called it emergency spending, and as such, they said it was exempted from the "pay as you go" rules that they, themselves, approved just weeks earlier. Pay as you go means every time you have a program or something you need to do, you have to in the same bill, have an explanation of where the money is going to come from to pay for that.

That was the crux of Bunning's complaint. But last night he stood down. A vote took place, the measure passed, and President Obama signed it, a big sigh of relief for a lot of people.

Joining me now to break it down and to tell us where we stand now, my colleague in business, Christine Romans, my co-host on "YOUR $$$$$."

Christine, there were many, many people who said the hundreds of thousands of -- the more than a million people in limbo because of these unemployment checks were the wrong people to be a political football or baseball, as the case may be here. But if we got that done, we have to make sure we don't ignore Bunning's underlying point about financial responsibility in Congress.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Right. Look, there's a real -- there's a real discussion to be had about the long-term economics about this. I mean, we have people out of work for on average 30.2 weeks. That's 211 days. In some states you can get unemployment benefits up to 99 weeks.

So, let's -- let's have a discussion about how we're going to pay for it going forward, how we're going to fix the economy, or try to get things going again, right?

VELSHI: Right.

ROMANS: But this is, Ali, and as you have very rightly pointed out, there is a big hole in the tire, and we've put a little patch on it. And this only goes through for another few days. I mean, look at the calendar here. This is a temporary fix. March 28 is when we're going to be having this discussion again about infrastructure funding and about small business loan guarantees. Those are also in this, right?

VELSHI: Right.

ROMANS: So It's only a only a temporary fix to March 28. A temporary fix to March 21 for the COBRA assistance and that Medicare doc fix.

VELSHI: That's the amount of money that -- right.

ROMANS: Taxpayers -- right, well taxpayers are paying 65 percent of the premium for people who are out of work for their COBRA. And then the Medicare doc fix, you know, we talked about that yesterday. That's doctors would take a big cut in how much they were going to take from Medicare...

VELSHI: So in other words, we had better have some -- some progress in this discussion because guys like Bunning -- and by the way, 19 senators did vote against the bill that passed last night -- are going to be right back, saying, "Didn't we have this discussion a month ago? At some point we have to pay for these things."

ROMANS: Right. And April 5 is when we're going to have the discussion again. That's when the deadline runs out for these jobless checks. So there is a big discussion to be had here.

And there's also, I think, Ali -- and I'm interested in your take on this. Is this feeling that, after five days, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday...

VELSHI: Right.

ROMANS: ... five days of Bunning bashing, there are people who are now saying, wait a minute. Did the Democrats let this marinate for political points? Could this have been handled differently or better earlier. Were 11.5 million people on unemployment checks kind of allowed the twist in the wind, to get worried about this.

VELSHI: Right.

ROMANS: When they knew all along they were going to try to figure out a way to fix it. It is not fair and isn't it broken government still?

VELSHI: And Bunning said many times that, if the Democrats want this through the Senate, they can get it through the Senate. They still have a majority. They could have done that.

Here's a question, Christine, that keeps coming up, I've seen it a lot on my Facebook page from people. What are the economics of continuing to fund unemployment insurance? I mean, I think we all know my position on this is that...


VELSHI: ... people can't just go out and get a job as many people have very callously of said. There are six applicants for every available job in America.

But there are people saying, "What's the long-term economics of continuing to fund unemployment insurance, as opposed to funding something that somehow gets people jobs?"

ROMANS: And that's a really good question. And the question -- the answer is do you think that people are really going to not get a job and instead get a lower unemployment check for -- for weeks and weeks and months and months? And I fundamentally think that there are people in this country who want to get a job.

VELSHI: Right.

ROMANS: And if the average length of unemployment is 30 weeks, that means people who are getting 99 weeks of unemployment, those are on the margins and the outliers. Those are people who are chronically unemployed here.

But that most people -- and also, jobless check doesn't come for free. You have to prove your department of labor -- it's a state program -- to prove to the state department of labor, right, that you're trying to find a job, that you've had interviews, that have been moving forward.

So it's the people that I've talked to and people that you've talked to who are looking for a job right now, they don't want to be on unemployment benefits forever, right?

VELSHI: Right. Most people -- I have not met anybody who said to me, "This is the life. I'm getting my unemployment check, may or not be able to get health insurance. This is the life."

I strongly agree with you. But maybe there are outliers somewhere, but I would just love to be having the discussion with you about how there are three jobs for everybody who's looking for one. But one day we will have that.

Christine, thank you so much.

ROMANS: We will have that. And we'll ring a bell when we have it, right?

VELSHI: We will have it. We will do that. Christine Romans, my co-host from "YOUR $$$$$." You can watch us on Saturdays at 1 p.m. Eastern and Sundays -- Sundays at 3 p.m. Eastern. We'll have a lot more of this discussion on "YOUR $$$$$."

Let me get a check on the top stories that we're following here at CNN.

We're about 20 minutes away now from the president unveiling what is apparently is his final -- his final health-care package. He'll detail the plan from the White House a day after he said he'd throw a few GOP ideas into the mix. But the president is signaling that Democrats are ready to go it alone. You can watch the president live, right here, on CNN, with the best political team on television.

A Capitol Hill tribute for the late congressman, John Murtha. The House paused this morning for a memorial service honoring the Pennsylvania Democrat, who died last month after suffering complications from gallbladder surgery. Vice President Biden, House Speaker Pelosi and top military brass all spoke at the service.

And gay couples in D.C. are one step closer to walking down the aisle. The city's same-sex marriage law takes effect today, and at least 50 couples lined up outside a courthouse this morning to apply for marriage licenses. Processing the applications takes at least three business days.

All right, when we come back, I have to remind you of this, it's still winter, and the winter weather won't go away. There's Chad. He is tracking snow out west. We'll get an update from him when we come back.


VELSHI: All right. Here I am, as I always am, at the severe weather center with Chad Myers. What have you got for us?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: You know, I like that we're the same height.

VELSHI: We are.

MYERS: When I was working with Daryn Kagan, she was way up here. And I'm like, "Oh, my God." You're great.

VELSHI: Like me and Reynolds Wolf.

MYERS: Exactly.

Hey, this is heavenly. Do you know why it's heavenly? Because this is the uplift.


MYERS: Heavenly now. This is out at Lake Tahoe. You can hardly see that the lake is there. But only about every third chair is full.


MYERS: Do you know what that means? There's no lift line.


MYERS: And it also means that there's an awful lot of snow coming down. Some people maybe can't get there. We'll have to see.

VELSHI: There's that much. MYERS: You know, there's going to be that much snow. That Truckee Pass kind of going on up there.


MYERS: You may have to make sure you have the chains in the car. People in the east don't think about taking chains.

VELSHI: right.

MYERS: If you're in the west, you think about having your chains.

Boston, JFK, LaGuardia, and San Francisco, a little bit delayed today, and you don't fly out of JFK much, do you?

VELSHI: No, I don't.

MYERS: OK. Well, this is going to be off the radar.

VELSHI: A little far from my house in New York.

MYERS: I'm going to tease JFK. Because yesterday...


MYERS: ... they closed the busiest runway.

VELSHI: Right.

MYERS: And what is that going to do to world travel?

VELSHI: Right, yes, and this is always an important point you make. It's not always about the city you're in, if you're -- if it's a hub airport, if it's an airport that's very important to travel elsewhere. OK. That's off the radar, which we're going to get to later on with Chad Myers.

What we are going to get to is that we are about 15 minutes away from the president of the United States making what he is calling his final -- his final approach on health-care reform. He is going to include some GOP proposals, but he says if the Republicans don't get on board with this, he's going it alone. We have full coverage of that when we come back. Stay with us.


VELSHI: Get you a check on our top stories right now.

Just minutes to go until President Obama lays out yet another plan for a health-care bill. He is embracing a few Republican ideas in a nod to bipartisanship, but he is signaling and will signal, we're told, very strongly that Democrats are ready to push the overhaul through without Republican help. You can watch him here live. Wolf Blitzer and the best political team on television will be joining me momentarily to start our coverage of the president's speech. Charlie Rangel is temporarily giving up his gavel as the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means committee. The 20-term New York Congressman said he didn't want his ethics controversy to jeopardize other Democrats' election chances. A House ethics panel has been looking into Rangel's trips, assets, income, and homes as possible violation of gift rules.

In Iraq, three suicide bombers killed at least 29 people, wounded another 42 others in the -- in central city of Baqubah. This comes just four days before the country's parliamentary elections. Islamic militants have promised to disrupt the vote.

All right. I want to go to Chile. Karl Penhaul joins me now, I believe he's on the phone. We understand that there's a tsunami warning in your area, Karl?

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): That is correct, Ali. We are in the coastal fishing village of Chatto in south end of Chile (ph). There is a full tsunami alert in effect. In the last few moments Chilean marines who were handing out food aid to the survivors of the tsunami -- earthquake, ordered everybody to head up the hill to high ground.

This came about 20 minutes after a very strong aftershock, which shook the ground heavily, and 20 minutes later, the full tsunami alert comes into effect. Scores of Chilean marines ordering people to leave the aid lines and to help up the hill. The Chilean police are here as well. There was a stampede of cars heading up the hill. People simply dropped the food that they'd been given and also headed up to high ground.

Remember now, a few days now after the earthquake, some people have dared to go back down to what has been left of their homes here in the town of Chatto (ph), and were scavenging for the few possessions that were left. They were right down in the center of the town that had already been flattened, nerves had already been jangled, and now that the new tsunami warning is in effect, people are running up the hill. Some of them in tears, some of them breathless, some of them being dragged and helped by their neighbors.

Now, what the people here are saying is that they're keeping a close watch on the bay, and we are right now on high ground about a kilometer back from the sea line. And what they say is if it's right, it was, on the day of the earthquake, they will expect a tsunami wave to begin rolling in in about one hour's time, Ali.

VELSHI: Karl, where are you on the coast? Describe where you are. We know you're in a coastal city. Where in relation to -- to points in Chile that our viewers may know of?

PENHAUL: We are an hour's drive north of the city of Concepcion. Concepcion is chile's second largest city, so we're an hour's drive north of them, the town is called Dichatto (ph). It's a very quaint fishing village, people live here from farming the sea, so to speak, but it's also a tourist village as well. Normally a population of 5,500, and it can swell up to 20,000 as tourists come in the summer.

But this town on the day of the earthquake was flattened by three tsunami waves that rolled in here, inhabitants said the tsunami waves were up to 15 feet high. And so now -- now they're very mindful of the dangers. That is why they are observing today's call by the military to once again head to high ground. A tsunami wave could be on the way, Ali.

VELSHI: All right, let's bring in our severe weather expert, Chad Myers standing by at the weather center. Chad, what do you know about this?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: A very severe aftershock, we call it an aftershock simply because there was a large earthquake in general. A 6.0, or the 6.2, whatever it is, as the USGS moves its numbers around, would be a significant earthquake in itself.

But I don't think there's as much of a threat as maybe the local officials are saying here, but that's great. I mean, you need to get people out of the way. Look at all of the aftershocks. Santiago up here. Concepcion down here. There's the main quake right here. But the two red dots, those have both happened in the past hour. So when the water moves, it can be very, very quickly to move along a shore, and even though we saw a very small tsunami in Hawaii --

VELSHI: Right.

MYERS: -- very localized, large tsunamis can be generated very quickly that don't have much time to lose energy. When you get an earthquake close to shore like that, it comes on very quickly. And it can do some big damage, because it doesn't have --

VELSHI: Doesn't have the time and the space to dissipate.

MYERS: Right. Exactly right.

VELSHI: All right. The red dot you've got north of Concepcion, that's the general direction that Karl Penhaul and our crew are evacuating from at the moment.

MYERS: I was really trying to figure out. That one was almost onshore. I was trying to figure out the name of the town. But look at how the towns kind of line up right along the shore here, and then one road in, the waves literally came in, washed all the way to parts of the middle part of the town, and washed back.

We'll have to see, I mean, on all these towns, with the 6.0, probably not a large tsunami, but better to be safe than sorry.

VELSHI: All right, we'll keep on top of you with this Chad, thank you very much. And Karl Penhaul in Chile is evacuating along with the CNN crew and everyone else in town have been warned to evacuate and get to higher ground. We'll bring you up to speed on exactly what's developing over there as it continues to develop. Karl will keep us posted. Now, in a few minutes, in a few minutes. We'll be listening in to the president of the United States making his pitch, his final health care pitch, as he says. He is going to include some Republican suggestions that came out of the summit last week, but he says that the Democrats are willing to go this alone.

When we begin our coverage of the president's speech, I'll be joined by Wolf Blitzer as well as members of the Best Political Team on Television to get us some sense of how this is going to work. Stay with us. Well be back in a moment.


VELSHI: All right. Moments away from President Obama's speech about health care. He is prepared to make his final pitch. Says he's going to go it alone with the Democrats if the Republicans don't want to do this.

That's the East Room at the White House that you're looking at. Our Suzanne Malveaux is in the East Room. Our Ed Henry joins us now, CNN senior White House correspondent, to tell us what we're expecting to see -- oh, Ed Henry, look at that.


VELSHI: I didn't know you were here.

HENRY: Come on, man, I was in Savannah yesterday.

VELSHI: I told you we could have gotten some food here.

HENRY: I decided to surprise you.

VELSHI: You have to put your mike on the right way.

HENRY: Oh, no! Is it falling down there?

VELSHI: It's upside down. But sit down! You're following this.

Ed Henry, our senior White House correspondent joins us every day on this show. I knew he was in Savannah yesterday. I was worried about you because you in a shop with tools and you didn't get hurt.

HENRY: It's a bizarre type of scene. I'm not going to be allowed to sit in this chair because it's too large.

VELSHI: That's an unusual chair. Well, you know what. Let's just readjust this for a second. We'll both stand up until the chair is fixed. What are we expecting to hear from the president?

HENRY: What's interesting is that we've seen -- we've gotten a look at the remarks and there's not a lot new there. This is fascinating, because you covered the markets for a long time. What does Wall Street want more than anything? They want certainty?

VELSHI: They want a decision, they want to know what's going to happen.

HENRY: And presidents and congressional leaders want that, too. What's fascinating about this debate it's all about uncertainty. We really don't know how it will end up. The president is going to make a nod to Republicans, "Listen, this is the last chance. I'll sprinkle this with things you like, like tort reform and health savings accounts and things like that." Knowing full well that the Republicans are saying they are not going to sign on to that.

VELSHI: They said it when the president first put out his new agenda on health care on last Monday. They kind of said it at the summit again.

HENRY: Absolutely.

VELSHI: Are people thinking that the Republicans will say, okay, it's the last chance, we better get on?

HENRY: They realize it's highly unlikely the Republicans will join on. In fact, I talked to some Democrats on the Hill that are frustrated the president is even giving the Republicans this last chance. They say, look, they're not going to come on board, he's been trying to get them for a year. Instead, what the president -- these Democrats think in private should be doing is focusing more on winning over Democrats. Because essentially what he's going to say without using the r word, reconciliation, he going to say essentially this is -- I want an up or down vote --

VELSHI: Which means they can push it through the Senate themselves.

HENRY: Simple majority, 51 votes. But what's really fascinating we haven't seen a case like this where a president is staking so much of his presidency on one domestic issue. And we don't know how it's going to turn out. He doesn't know, if he steps up to this podium today whether or not he'll have a simple majority of votes in the Senate and the House. He's really is literally rolling the dice here.

VELSHI: All right. We've got the big guns here. We've got Ed Henry on set with me, and the speech will begin in a few minutes, so let's bring in the master of the Best Political Team on Television. Wolf Blitzer joins me now from Washington. Wolf?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, and thanks to Ed Henry. I want both of you to stand by, because we have a lot to assess, Ali. We're going to pick your brain as well. There's a lot of substantive information that the president's going to put forward, and we want to make sure that we put all of this in its proper context. Gloria Borger and David Gergen, they're here with me right now, members of the Best Political Team on Television.

But let's go to the White House, the East Room. Suzanne Malveaux, our White House correspondent, inside the East Room. Suzanne, I hope you can hear me, but set the stage for us. Who -- who are the invited guests that the president has brought in? SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Sure, Wolf. We're waiting for the president to arrive inside of the East Room, and it's interesting if you take a look out at the audience, about 50 people or so, invited guests of the White House. Mostly health care workers, physicians. Half of them are in dark suits, traditional suits, that you see here in Washington. But the other half are in physician's coats and lab coats with their names and the hospital badges that they have. Obviously here to show support for the president's health care plan.

And aides have been very frank this morning in talking with them about the fact that they don't expect this statement or this speech necessarily to win over any Republicans, but that it is mostly to try to give the Democrats more political cover, if you will, to say, "Look, you know, here are some of the ideas that the president has reached out and arrived at some sort of consensus," and Republican ideas that he likes, but that it's time to move on.

We're going to hear the president. He's been tinkering with this, Wolf, I've been told, you know, for the last couple of hours. The language or so, about 15 minutes in length. But he is going to say that this debate began a year ago. And that all options, all ideas, have been exhausted. And that now it's decision time.

BLITZER: Yes. And the president's going to make the case that it's got to be done in the next few weeks.

Let's go to Capitol Hill, that's where it has to get done. Dana Bash is our senior congressional correspondent.

Dana, I understand the process is basically going to be that the house will pass the Senate version, the version that passed Christmas Eve, but then immediately take up some tweaks, some changes, in the Senate version, under separate legislation, which will then be sent back to the Senate, where it will have to pass with 51 votes under this controversial reconciliation process. Is that the legislative process that you're hearing?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Exactly. That exactly the way it is going to work. And just to echo what Suzanne was saying about the president making this speech today, in many ways it's cover for Democrats to be able to go along with that process. It certainly seems to be the case, because even as he's out there making the speech, and frankly, even last week as we were talking about, as he was having the big seven-hour summit with Republicans, Democrats were already moving forward on this plan to do this without Republicans.

And it is very much underway. There are meetings this morning. There were meetings yesterday to move this along, and the issues right now are procedural. They are technical. And they are political.

And the big political question is, do they have the votes? Not only in the Senate, it is really a big question about the House of Representatives, because it passed by a very slim margin last time, and there are a lot of Democrats who are vulnerable in tough races. And it's unclear if they are going to -- those who voted yes last time are going to switch their votes and potentially vote no, because of all of the pressure on them from various sources.

BLITZER: And all of the outreach that the president has done to the Republicans, including incorporating these four changes yesterday that he heard at the Blair House summit last week. Apparently not enough to convince even one Republican in the Senate or the House, for that matter, to change his or her mind.

Gloria, this three-step process that has to go forward within the next few weeks. The House passes the Senate version, the House then makes some changes to the Senate version, and then the Senate passes those changes. It's by no means a done deal that the first step is going to get done.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: No. It's not a done deal, but you know what the president's going to come out and say is, this is the way it has to happen. We've got to have an up-or-down vote.

I was talking with a senior White House adviser today, Wolf, who put it to me this way. He said, "This is the last helicopter out of Saigon," meaning they have made a political decision that they're going to use their Democrats to get this through, because what they need, this aide says, is they need an accomplishment. And they believe that once this passes, people will begin to see the benefits of it, and it will not ricochet against them, but will work for them.

BLITZER: Why do they have to do it in the next few weeks? Why not as long as it takes? We've waited, what, 70 years? Why does it have to be done by the Easter recess?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think, Wolf, there is sort of a shelf life of these kind of projects. You either get them done or they fail. They fail of their own weight. I find it very odd to hear the analogy to the last helicopter out of Vietnam. As I recall, that was a losing war.


GERGEN: I'm not quite sure what we're talking about here as a metaphor for this.

I think what we're looking for, though, Wolf, today, in just scanning the president's remarks. He's really throwing down the gauntlet today. He's said, "OK, this is it, we're going for reconciliation." We don't care if we get Republicans or not. We'd like you to come aboard, but we're realistic enough to know you're not. This is the bottom line and we're moving it forward.

That's the declaration. That the Republicans -- there's going to be a battle here, a battle royal, it's going to be huge. What I don't think we see in the president's remarks today are many specifics of what he wants to do with the bill now. He put out the paper before on the White House Web site, but we don't have any specifics in this speech. BLITZER: All right, very quickly, Roland Martin, you're watching this, we're only a few seconds away from the president. It's crunch time, big time, right, Roland?

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, absolutely. Look, also, you're leaving out one critical factor, independent voters. The summit last week and the announcement today was also letting them know, I tried to work with Republicans. I tried to bring them along. I'm taking four of their ideas. We're still moving forward because they have been the -- running from this president as fast as possible. That is something also that we cannot ignore as a result of this announcement today.

BLITZER: And this is one of several deadlines in effect that the White House has put forward, since the president came into office. They introduced all of this. They asked the House and Senate to go forward early in the president's first year.

MARTIN: Right.

BLITZER: They were hoping get to it done by the August recess, then by the Christmas recess, and now they're hoping once again by the Easter recess to get it done. But if they can't get it done, Roland, very quickly, why not go on until they can get it done?

MARTIN: Because they will be dead in the water. Look, you got to appeal to the base. The Democrats are weighed down, double digits to Republicans, so you have to give your base something.

Also, you've got to move beyond this topic and focus on the economy, and the president needs a win, a major win. If he can't move forward with a bill that he is signing -- last year was a total failure. The first half this year is a failure and it doesn't bode well for their agenda, frankly, for the rest of the year, Democrats must be able to say we did achieve a major effort on health care. He needs this desperately.

BLITZER: The president is being introduced now -- about to be introduced. You can see some of the other special guests go up on the podium, who will surround the president as he prepares -- as he gets ready to deliver this speech. It's not really going to be a speech, the White House says, more like a statement, although it is fairly long. The advanced text that they released, six single-spaced pages, so we could go on 10 or 15 minutes.

And, David Gergen, very quickly, while we wait for the president. Nancy Pelosi is going to be key right now in getting this first step done. The Senate version, with so many House members don't like -- hold on one second, David. The president is now going to speak, as he has been introduced. So, you'll answer that question later.




Thank you.


Please, everybody, have a seat.

Thank you so much, all of you, for joining us today. And I want to thank Julie, Barbara, Roland, Steven (ph), Renee and Christopher, standing behind me, physicians, physician assistants and nurses who understand how important it is for us to make much-needed changes in our health care system.

I want to thank all of you who are here today.

I want to especially recognize two people who have been working tirelessly on that -- on this effort, my secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius...


... as well as our quarterback for health reform...


... out of the White House, Nancy-Ann DeParle.


We began our push to reform health insurance last March in this room with doctors and nurses who know the system best. And so it's fitting to be joined by all of you as we bring this journey to a close.

Last Thursday, I spent seven hours at a summit where Democrats and Republicans engaged in a public and very substantive discussion about health care.

This meeting capped off a debate that began with a similar summit nearly one year ago. And since then, every idea has been put on the table, every argument has been made, everything there is to say about health care has been said...


OBAMA: ... and just about everybody has said it.


So now is the time to make a decision about how to finally reform health care so that it works, not just for the insurance companies, but for America's families and America's businesses.

Now, where both sides say they agree is that the status quo is not working for the American people. Health insurance is becoming more expensive by the day. Families can't afford it. Businesses can't afford it. The federal government can't afford it. Smaller businesses and individuals who don't get coverage at work are squeezed especially hard.

And insurance companies freely ration health care based on who's sick and who's healthy; who can pay and who can't.

That's the status quo. That's the system we have right now.

Democrats and Republicans agree that this is a serious problem for America. And we agree that if we do nothing -- if we throw up our hands and walk away -- it's a problem that will only grow worse. Nobody disputes that.

More Americans will lose their family's health insurance if they switch jobs or lose their job. More small businesses will be forced to choose between health care and hiring. More insurance companies will deny people coverage who have preexisting conditions, or they'll drop people's coverage when they get sick and need it most.

And the rising cost of Medicare and Medicaid will sink our government deeper and deeper and deeper into debt.

On all of this, we agree.

So the question is, what do we do about it?

On one end of the spectrum, there are some who've suggested scrapping our system of private insurance and replacing it with a government-run health care system. And though many other countries have such a system, in America it would be neither practical nor realistic.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are those -- and this includes most Republicans in Congress -- who believe the answer is to loosen regulations on the insurance industry; whether it's state consumer protections or minimum standards for the kind of insurance they can sell. The argument is is that that will somehow lower costs.

I disagree with that approach. I'm concerned that this would only give the insurance industry even freer rein to raise premiums and deny care.

So I don't believe we should give government bureaucrats or insurance company bureaucrats more control over health care in America. I believe it's time to give the American people more control over their health care and their health insurance.

I don't believe we can afford to leave life-and-death decisions about health care to the discretion of insurance company executives alone. I believe that doctors and nurses and physicians' assistants like the ones in this room should be free to decide what's best for their patients.

(APPLAUSE) Now, the proposal I put forward gives Americans more control over their health insurance and their health care by holding insurance companies more accountable. It builds on the current system, where most Americans get their health insurance from their employer. If you like your plan, you can keep your plan. If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.

Now, I can tell you as the father of two young girls, I would not want any plan that interferes with the relationship between a family and their doctor.

Essentially, my proposal would change three things about the current health care system.

First, it would end the worst practices of insurance companies. No longer would they be able to deny your coverage because of preexisting condition. No longer would they be able to drop your coverage because you got sick. No longer would they be able to force you to pay unlimited amounts of money out of your own pocket. No longer would they be able to arbitrarily and massively raise premiums, like Anthem Blue Cross recently tried to do in California: up to 39percent increases in one year in the individual market. Those practices would end.

Second, my proposal would give uninsured individuals and small- business owners the same kind of choice of private health insurance that members of Congress get for themselves.

Because if it's good enough for members of Congress, it's good enough for the people who pay their salaries.


The reason federal employees get a good deal on health insurance is that we all participate in an insurance market where insurance companies give better coverage and better rates because they get more customers. It's an idea that many Republicans have embraced in the past, before politics intruded.


And my proposal says that if you still can't afford the insurance in this new marketplace, even though it's going to provide better deals for people than they can get right now in the individual marketplace, then we'll offer you tax credits to do so; tax credits that add up to the largest middle class tax cut for health care in history.

After all, the wealthiest among us can already buy the best insurance there is, and the least well-off are able to get coverage through Medicaid. So it's the middle class that gets squeezed, and that's who we have to help.

Now, it is absolutely true that all of this will cost some money: about $100 billion per year. But most of this comes from the nearly$2 trillion a year that America already spends on health care -- but a lot of it is not spent wisely. A lot of that money is being wasted or spent badly.

So within this plan we're going to make sure the dollars we spend go toward making insurance more affordable and more secure. We're going to eliminate wasteful taxpayer subsidies that currently go to insurance and pharmaceutical companies, set a new fee on insurance companies that stand to gain a lot of money and a lot of profits as millions of Americans are able to buy insurance, and we're going to make sure that the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share on Medicare.

The bottom line is our proposal is paid for, and all the new money generated in this plan goes back to small businesses and middle- class families who can't afford health insurance.

It would also lower prescription drug prices for seniors, and it would help train new doctors and nurses and physicians' assistants to provide care for American families.

Finally, my proposal would bring down the cost of health care for millions: families, businesses and the federal government.

We have now incorporated most of the serious ideas from across the political spectrum about how to contain the rising cost of healthcare; ideas that go after the waste and abuse in our system, especially in programs like Medicare. But we do this while protecting Medicare benefits and extending the financial stability of the program by nearly a decade.