The biggest task for President Obama in his speech on Wednesday night was to take back the health care debate after a chaotic summer where unruly town halls and misrepresentations dominated the headlines. Yesterday, it seemed, some of that chaos continued, much of it centered on two words blurted by Representative Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina): “You lie!” Wilson shouted the words in response to the president’s claim that no illegal immigrants would receive health care under his plan. Yesterday, after a request from GOP leadership, Wilson apologized for his outburst, calling it "spontaneous." For a look at how politics changed for Republicans this week we speak to Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has been working on its own health care bill. We also talk to Jackie Calmes, Washington correspondent for the New York Times, about the raucous disagreement between the political parties and what it means for health care reform. (Read the full interview transcript)
In case you missed the presidential address, here it is in its entirety:
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Jackie Calmes, does this hold up the debate in some sense or does it hand Rahm Emanuel and the Obama administration something of a gift, in the sense that it's easy to portray the GOP as obstructionists here? Jackie?
JACKIE CALMES: Well, I think a gift is exactly what it was and the phrase I would have used myself. It just sort of dramatized for the public, including people who maybe aren't so supportive of what the president is trying to do, the sort of opposition that he's up against. That's what it suggests. I mean it's one thing for people to see through August that some opponents were rude and not letting everyone's voices get heard as they shouted out, but it was another thing to see it from the floor of the House during a joint session of Congress. I've covered Congress over the years part-time or full-time for 26 years, and that was back during the Reagan administration, and you really started to see this in both parties – this sort of sport in the audience of Congress about indicating whether they liked or didn't like – we're just getting quite close to the British Parliament system – but you never saw that kind of rudeness, ever.
HOCKENBERRY: Well, and we should point out, the Brits are doing alright. They lost their empire, OK, we'll give them that. But I mean in a sense, it hasn't destroyed British democracy to have that kind of rancor in Parliament. But, let's listen to Barack Obama, who was speaking on Wednesday night. In many ways, I'm wondering if he is partly to blame for all this confusion and backbiting and complaining about the entire health care debate. Listen:
[President Obama, on tape] Too many have used this to score short term political points, even if it robs the country of the opportunity to solve the problem of a long term challenge. And out of this blizzard of charges and counter charges, confusion has reigned.
HOCKENBERRY: So the reigning president, Representative Marsha Blackburn, says confusion has reigned. And one could argue that as impolitic and impolite as Joe Wilson was, he was attempting to get clarity from the president. Isn't it the president's responsibility to make this debate clearer? And is confusion partly his fault here?
BLACKBURN: There is confusion on exactly what that bill – H.R. 3200 – would do. Because the president has said one thing – you have the promises the president has made that the bill would deliver, that health care reform would deliver. Unfortunately, in Tennessee, many of those promises were made with our health care system. Those promises were broken and that program nearly broke the bank. Tennessee had the test case for public option health care. So...
HOCKENBERRY: And Massachusetts, we should point out, is struggling with the public option – the mandate option anyway.
BLACKBURN: That's right. That's exactly right, and Maine has had problems as well. So, there is no example where public option has worked. There's also the confusion - they say, well, this doesn't allow abortion funding; this doesn't allow funding for illegal immigrants. But the problem is the language in the bill doesn't explicitly exclude that. So you get into how that is written – and also, on top of this, you have situations where unfortunate comments were made by the Speaker about people who were coming to some of the events this summer.
HOCKENBERRY: So anxiety and frustration was building up, and that's a fair point.
BLACKBURN: Yes, and Harry Reid saying unfortunate things about President Bush when he was still there. And of course, he refused to apologize. And you also had the situation when President Bush was there and trying to work on Social Security and Medicare reform and he was heckled by some of the Democrat party. So...
HOCKENBERRY: So as Jackie Calmes was saying...
BLACKBURN: ... this is nothing new.
HOCKENBERRY: This has been coming for a long time.
BLACKBURN: That's right.
HOCKENBERRY: Let me remind people, we are speaking with Representative Marsha Blackburn, representative of Tennessee. And Jackie Calmes is also with us, Washington correspondent for our partner The New York Times. So, in steps: Jackie, John Boehner - Republican leader in the House, to find some clarity. Can he do it? Listen.
[Representative John Boehner (R-Ohio), on tape] It really is time to just stop. Hit the reset button and sit down in a bipartisan way and begin to deal with what we can deal with to make our current health care system work better.
HOCKENBERRY: Jackie Calmes, it seems "hit the reset button" is a bit of a mantra there during the Obama administration and now to hear a Republican using it. Is that going to happen? Reset?
CALMES: No, it's not. I mean the legislative process is just really seriously getting underway here in the fall. Four of the five committees that have to act have approved a bill but really the crucial one is the Senate Finance Committee and it's supposed to act. But hitting, you know, it isn't – if I really, or anybody – it's not just me. Most people – there's no real way you could really start from scratch and expect to get House Republicans especially, and I think Congresswoman Blackburn would agree, and certainly most of the Senate Republicans to come along. Just as Democrats in 2003, uh, 2005 were not going to go along with President Bush in making Social Security to create private accounts for individuals. Neither are Republicans going to go along with the plan or outline that President Obama and the Democrats are working on to overhaul health care. It's just not going to happen.
HOCKENBERRY: But in this particular case, Jackie Calmes, the Washington correspondent for The New York Times, the Democrats have the numbers in this case. So, Representative Marsha Blackburn, Representative from Tennessee; I mean, if they can railroad a bill or vote a party line vote and get something passed, do you have a campaign issue or do you pretty much have to say to your constituents: we want reform, this isn't the best, I definitely want to improve things so you know, help out the administration here?
BLACKBURN: I think the bigger point is that they have an issue with the American people if they move forward on that. That's an issue for them to address with the American people. The American people have spoken out clearly. All the polls indicate they do not want a government run, government delivered program. They do want health care reform. We all agree. There needs to be health care reform. So the problem...
HOCKENBERRY: That's the lack of clarity.
BLACKBURN: That's right. And their problem is going to be with the American people. My hope would be – and you know, I think Jackie would agree with this. Every relationship, every good relationship you have in your life is seeded, is grounded in respect. And there should be that respect shown from each individual to the other members of the body. It should be shown from those members of Congress to their constituents. It should be shown for the institution. And I think the American people would like to see that their opinion is respected in this debate.
HOCKENBERRY: But I think the American people are frustrated with health care bills and issues of all kinds.
BLACKBURN: I think we all are.
HOCKENBERRY: They may be worried that Congress is spending its time talking about being polite and decorum and manners. Jackie Calmes, I heard you sighing there in the background. Do you want to give us a final thought here?
CALMES: Well, I don't know if it's sighing but the thought that I would leave is that I think you can quibble with a lot of the details that might come out but I think what would happen if a health care bill does pass is, in reality, people would see it is anything but a new government-run system or much more government-run than we already have with Medicare and Medicaid; V.A. veterans' benefits and children health benefits. So I think the Democrats, and I think they believe this too, what will get them over the line is that better to pass something than do nothing.
HOCKENBERRY: Alright, Jackie Calmes, Washington correspondent for our partner The New York Times, speaking to us from the nation's capital. We're also speaking with Marsha Blackburn, member of the House Energy and Commerce committee, who represents the state's (Tennessee) 7th congressional district. Congresswoman Blackburn, thanks so much for being with us.
BLACKBURN: Good to be with you. Thank you.