Politics & Policy

No Direction Home

Senator Hatch says a public option would be a costly wrong turn.

As he walked out of the Capitol last night, just after President Obama wrapped up his health-care speech, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R., Utah) was told by a security guard to head down another path, since the president’s visit had caused his usual route to be blocked. Hatch, of course, was cordial. He chatted with the guard for a few moments, then found another way to his car.

For Senator Hatch, dealing with misdirection on the Hill in recent months has not always been so pleasant. Since he left the Senate Finance Committee’s “Gang of Seven” in late July, he has been, for Democrats, “the one who got away.” It was always a long-shot prospect for Hatch, but he stuck with bipartisan health-care talks for weeks earlier this year before finally admitting to Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.), the committee’s chairman, that he couldn’t stay under “false pretenses.”

“When Orrin Hatch left the table, it was a big deal,” David Gergen, a former adviser to four presidents, told me a few days ago. “Hatch carries a lot of weight in the conservative community. He has struck deals in the past that conservatives have been able to live with.”

One of Hatch’s most notable bipartisan deals was his work on children’s health insurance in 1997 alongside the late Massachusetts senator Edward M. Kennedy. President Obama cited that effort in his speech last night: “Those of us who knew Teddy and worked with him here — people of both parties — know that what drove him was something more. His friend, Orrin Hatch, knows that. They worked together to provide children with health insurance.”

That’s heady stuff. Yet, as Hatch drove away from the brightly lit Hill, weaving his way through quiet Washington streets, he didn’t give it too much thought. The president’s shout-out was nice, but for Hatch, the health-care debate has never been about personal ties; it’s always been about the numbers and the fiscal reality. So, when he gave NRO a call, to reflect on the president’s speech, he was eager to talk about Obamacare and its discontents, not Camelot.

“You can’t help but like the president, he’s a very articulate and decent man,” says Hatch. “He says that we agree on 80 percent of [health-care reform]. I think there is some truth to that, but the problem is the 20 percent that is left. How are we going to pay for it? Where do we go from here? After tonight, it’s clear that what the president wants to do is very problematic and quite unworkable. You’ve got to question the sanity of throwing out the whole system with the bathwater.”

Hopes for a bipartisan deal after the president’s speech, says Hatch, are slim. “Naturally, I would like to see a bipartisan approach,” says Hatch. “The problem is, just look at what they did when we held out our bipartisan hands before — they go and do a health-committee bill that is totally Democrat. Then they were stuck with Senator Baucus on the finance committee to have some version of a public plan — with co-ops described as a public plan, individual mandates, and employer mandates.

“If you have employer mandates, where the employer is penalized because he has to provide insurance for employees, guess who gets hurt? Low-income employees. They are ones who get salaries cut and fired, whose companies go overseas. That’s not an answer to anything.”

Hatch says he “can’t see Senators Enzi, Grassley, or Snowe” supporting the Obama plan. If things fall apart within the Senate Finance Committee’s post-Hatch “Gang of Six,” the Utah senator worries that the Democrats may try and use “reconciliation,” a Senate procedural tool in which a majority party can pass a bill while skirting the threat of a filibuster. “Democrats are going to wind up in a tragedy,” says Hatch. “Reconciliation is a complete abuse of the rules. It would become a knock-down holy war.”

In coming weeks, Hatch says, he and his GOP colleagues in the Senate will try to avoid that scenario by “floating some ideas” from “six Republican plans that might well be considered.” Still, he says he is realistic about their chances of shaping the final bill. “Let’s face it,” says Hatch. “The Left controls the House. In the Senate, in my book, there is only one moderate Democrat, Ben Nelson from Nebraska. In the Democratic House, they have the so-called Blue Dogs, but I don’t rely on them. There have been too many times when they said they’d stick with us only to turn around and vote with Democrats, then celebrate victory. Hopefully they’ll stand up on this issue, one that deals with one-sixth of the American economy.”

One part of Obama’s speech that particularly irked Hatch was its Medicare rhetoric. “Medicare is now a $39 trillion liability and it is underpaying doctors and hospitals. It will be broke in the next decade and the president acts like everything is all right? Plus, the president acknowledged again that he wanted an IMAC, an independent Medicare advisory committee. They want to do that so they can determine what the government can do. They will get five people appointed that basically have life and death control. We all know we are heading towards rationing.”

Those worries aside, Hatch keeps coming back to the numbers. “Add it all up, or at least try to. If you go to a public plan, the Congressional Budget Office says that by 2019, 10 million people will transfer from private plans into public. However, a new study by the Lewin Group says actually 119 million people would shift from their current coverage to the public plan. So, somewhere between 10 million and 119 million is where we are heading. If that’s the case, it would lead to the federal government picking up the costs of those plans, according to both the House and Senate bills. The fact of the matter is the federal government is broke. If states tried to pick up the costs, they’d go broke trying. These are just some of the problems.”

Hatch also raised an eyebrow about Obama’s strategy for cutting costs. “For President Obama to say that the money to fund his program will come out of fraud, waste, and abuse, it just doesn’t make sense,” says Hatch. “They’re going to tax you to death.”

All this leaves Hatch a bit exasperated. “I can’t come back to a public plan,” he says, citing ethical reasons for leaving the Gang of Seven. “I knew Senator Baucus was restricted in what he could do, that he was not given enough flexibility for a bipartisan approach. I didn’t like the public plan with the co-op situation — that’s nice to talk about, but it’s just another government subsidy where everyone will eventually go into the public plan.”

Then again, “one very good thing about President Obama’s remarks tonight,” says Hatch, “is that he mentioned tort reform. I’ll believe it when I see it, to be honest. Accordingly, there are lots of things wrong with our health-care system that we could make right. But to move out of the system into a more public-controlled government system would just lead to tremendous new costs and dislocations.

“The bottom line is that there are 306 million people in this country. Eighty-five percent are relatively happy with their health-insurance program. Yes, they would like some reform, and there is no question that we’ll do some reform. But they’re relatively happy with what they have. Out of the 47 million remaining, six million of them work for companies that provide health care but don’t want to buy it themselves. Eleven million qualify for CHIP or Medicaid, but are not enrolled. Nine million earn $75,000 or more but won’t buy health care. Six million are undocumented workers. It comes down to 15 million people whose health care we need to subsidize,” says Hatch.

It will also come down to Hatch himself, one of three Republicans the president took the time to tip his cap to on Wednesday night for their bipartisan bona fides. But Hatch wasn’t fishing for a compliment.

What he wants is a little less misdirection.

— Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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