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'Gang Of Six's' Sen. Conrad May Be Health Care Key

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

One of the so-called Gang of Six senators negotiating a health care bill is Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat. He's chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and perhaps his party's most ardent deficit hawk.

Conrad's focus on the deficits and debt makes him a pivotal figure in the health care debate, as NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.

ANDREA SEABROOK: He's known in Congress as the budget guy. Everything, all $3 trillion of the federal budget runs through Senator Kent Conrad and his committee, so he's keenly aware of the long-term problems the United States faces when it comes to government spending and the national debt. And when it comes to health care? Conrad sees big, new problems with the idea of big, new government programs. Perhaps, that is why he was the first Democrat to say this.

Senator KENT CONRAD (Democrat, North Dakota; Chairman, Senate Budget Committee): The fact of the matter is there are not the votes in the United States Senate for the public option. There never have been. So to continue to chase that rabbit I think is just a wasted effort.

SEABROOK: That was on Fox News Sunday last week. The clip ran on dozens of blogs under the headline: Conrad Declares Public Option Dead, though he doesn't go quite that far.

Democratic leaders could ram a health care bill through the Senate. They'd have to use a special set of rules known as reconciliation. Conrad knows this: he just thinks it's a terrible idea. The rules were built to help senators ratchet down budget deficits, and that's a problem, says Conrad. He warns that if Democratic leaders use reconciliation rules to pass health care, it will force the Senate to gut the bill like a fish: cutting out the new insurance company regulations, changes for doctors and hospitals, anything that doesn't have to do with the budget. Now, because Conrad is at the nexus of budget expertise and political centrism, Senate Democratic leaders and committee chairs asked him to device a plan that could pass the Senate and get some Republican votes.

Enter the health care co-op.

Sen. CONRAD: This cooperative model would be very competitive, would get 12 million members in very short order, would become the third largest insurer in the country, would provide meaningful competition in the states that now have virtually none…

SEABROOK: That's Conrad stumping for the co-op idea on Fox Business Network. Health care co-ops would be to private insurance companies what credit unions are to private banks. The co-op would provide health insurance, but it would be a nonprofit business owned by its members. A big plus, says Conrad, they'd be a lot cheaper in the long-term. The idea already has support from centrists of both parties. But it's not gaining Conrad any fans in the more liberal parts of the Democratic Party.

Mr. CHARLES CHAMBERLAIN (Political Director, Democracy for America): There are a lot of things that can be said about him that are excellent.

SEABROOK: This is Charles Chamberlain of the liberal progressive group, Democracy for America.

Mr. CHAMBERLAIN: But the co-op proposal is a political compromise. This isn't an actual policy compromise that makes any sense.

SEABROOK: Democracy for America is trying to wrangle the votes in the Senate to pass health care with the public option intact. And Chamberlain says Conrad's co-op plan could water down real reform for the sake of a word: bipartisanship.

Mr. CHAMBERLAIN: Bipartisanship for the sake of bipartisanship is not worth of that bill. America needs real change when it comes to our health care reform. And we absolutely need to have the choice of a public option if we want to achieve that kind of change.

SEABROOK: So the pressure continues and the summer is waning. Conrad's co-op idea is trickling out in the news, making some Democrats wonder if it's enough change and others start counting new Republican votes. Conrad's personal stake in this? He could end up being the guy who represented the rational middle or the guy who killed real reform.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Seabrook covers Capitol Hill as NPR's Congressional Correspondent.
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