Sen. Michael Bennet says it would be 'a shame' if Graham-Cassidy prevails over bipartisan talks

Full interview transcript on health care below
Posted at 3:43 PM, Sep 22, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-22 18:27:16-04

DENVER – As Senate Republicans try to get another measure to the floor to repeal the Affordable Care Act with the Graham-Cassidy amendment, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., sat down to discuss the measure and bipartisan health care reform discussions he’s been a part of in recent weeks.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said Friday he couldn’t “in good conscience” vote for Graham-Cassidy, and Sen. Ron Paul, R-Ky., has also said he wouldn’t support the bill.

Since Republicans have only 52 senators, they can only afford to lose one more senator, and Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski both say they’re on the fence. Neither supported the last effort to pass a repeal-and-replace bill.

Analysis from Avalere Health and the Kaiser Family Foundation have both shown Colorado would lose billions in federal funding under the measure, and reports from the Colorado Health Institute and Brookings Institute out Friday both showed similar losses. The Colorado Hospital Association also voiced its opposition to the bill Thursday.

Bennet’s fellow senator from Colorado, Republican Cory Gardner, is still considering the bill ahead of a Senate Finance Committee hearing on it scheduled for Monday. He's been non-committal to the bill all week.

“Senator Gardner is continuing to review details over the weekend on a potential vote on the legislation next week,” his spokesman, Casey Contres, told Denver7 Friday.

Meanwhile, Bennet said that the process involved in this iteration of the bill is “worse than the last process” on the previous bill, and that he hopes more Republicans will rebuff the latest effort, as McCain said he would on Friday.

The full transcript of Bennet’s interview with Denver7’s Blair Miller can be read below. The video of the interview can be viewed in the player above.

0:07 Denver7’s Blair Miller

I guess first of all, let’s talk about the past couple hours here with the developments on the Graham-Cassidy bill. Was this something you saw coming with McCain coming out against it?

0:19 Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)

Well you never know what John’s going to do. He’s got a reputation as a maverick for a reason. But he was very clear the last time the health care bill was voted on that he felt that the process was beneath what we should be doing in the United States Senate. And this process, believe it or not, is even worse than the last process. So I can’t say that I’m surprised that he came out in the way he did. I hope a lot of people will join him though next week if they really are going to force a vote.

0:46 Denver7’s Blair Miller

What’s the sense that you get? I don’t know how the Democrats and Republicans are talking about all this…

0:56 Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)

Well that’s the bizarre thing about all this. After the last time when they tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act, they came up short. If they’d given me the chance to write a bill that was responsive to the critics of Obamacare, I’ll bet I could have done it. They wrote a bill totally unresponsive to the critics in Colorado, put it on the floor and expected people to vote for it. Well, not enough voted for it to pass. And then what we all agreed to do was have a bipartisan process. And for the last several weeks, I’m on the health care committee. I’ve been there with my colleague, Lamar Alexander, who’s the Republican chairman of the committee, who’s been leading an excellent bipartisan process to try to deal with stabilizing the individual insurance market in this country. We had great testimony about it. We were coming close to it. And then for some reason, these guys threw a bomb in the middle of it, interrupted the bipartisanship for more partisanship. My hope is that if this goes south, and I really do hope it does because it will hurt Colorado if it is passed, that we’ll then be able to go back to the bipartisan work we were doing as Republicans and Democrats working together.

2:04 Denver7’s Blair Miller

I saw Sen. [Patty] Murray, whenever Sen. Alexander came out and said, “These are kind of dead for now,” Sen. Murray didn’t really commit to it being “dead dead.” But is that what the next step will be if this bill fails?

2:15 Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)

Well if this bill fails, the answer is yes. If this bill succeeds, the chances to do it in a bipartisan way would be lost, and that would be a shame.

2:25 Denver7’s Blair Miller

We talk about a bipartisan fashion—now that McCain is out, Paul seems out, and Collins and Murkowski are both on the fence but voted against the prior bills. Where does Cory Gardner factor into that? I know you guys have a close working relationship.

2:40 Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)

We have a close relationship. We have a good working relationship. We have not seen health care in the same way, and I think you need to talk to him about that.

2:50 Denver’s Blair Miller

What sort of process has—Hickenlooper and Kasich’s plan: Has that had any effect on your guys’ HELP committee?

2:58 Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)

John Hickenlooper came and testified in front of the HELP committee with some other gubernatorial colleagues, and that helped. The rejection of the partisan plans by those governors has also helped. I mean I saw Kasich the other night on the TV explaining the reason why he was opposed to this most-recent plan was it was a 17% cut in his state to Medicaid without any alternative. So I think it’s helped create an atmosphere that says we should be doing this in a bipartisan way, not a partisan way. Not everybody has gotten that memo. So they’re going to make us go through these gyrations again and one of two things is going to happen: We’re going to go through these gyrations, they’re going to pass a bill that’s not been through committee, that hasn’t been well-researched, that hasn’t been well-discussed, that’s going to take health care from 500,000 Coloradans. Or we can sit down and work together and pass something that might actually stabilize insurance markets, which based on my traveling the state of Colorado, is really what people want.

4:05 Denver7’s Blair Miller

All of the analysis that’s come out so far this week has said this bill is horrible for Colorado, there’s really no getting around that…

4:13 Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)

*Laughs* This bill is horrible for Colorado. From the insurance market perspective alone, the conversation we’ve been having in the committee is how to kep the subsidized payments going at the same time that we’re getting more flexibility for states so we can send a signal to the insurance markets that it’s going to be OK—this takes all of that away and blows it all up. So rates are going to have to be set here soon, and we need to do better than this.

4:46 Denver7’s Blair Miller

Since Colorado has already set its rates for next year, how does that factor in versus some of these states that haven’t yet?

4:52 Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)

Colorado set their rates based on an assumption that the so-called CSR payments are continuing. If it’s not continuing, that raises a whole question for our insurers as well. I do think this is also another important point here, is that, one argument for this bill is they’ve said, well we’re trying to get federal government out of health care and into the state government. I can sort of understand that principle, but they’ve done it in such a convoluted way and they’ve given states only two years to figure out how to rebuild their entire health care system, that I think there’s a limit to the number of experts in this country who could actually have a rational conversation with 50 states about what this ought to look like. It would be much better to have a much-more measured process. And again, we could have a philosophical discussion about federal versus state versus local, but if we are going to do that, we ought to do it in committees with people testifying and also understanding what the consequences are going to be of what people have already.

6:01 Denver7’s Blair Miller

And you talk about, I think a Republican talking point for years now has been, “Let’s get the federal government out of our lives and out of our state government.” But with these federal programs like Medicaid and Medicare that are basically the center point of a lot of these health care discussions. How do you get the federal government out of these programs?

6:20 Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)

Well it depends on what you’re trying to achieve. It’s such a great question. First of all, these guys who hate these federal programs are finding ways to take money away from places like Colorado, which expanded Medicaid, put state money into the mix, and then they’re trying to send that federal money to states that didn’t lift a finger. Which I think is deeply unfair. So of the states that are gainers in this proposal, all but two are states that have two Republican senators. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see what’s going on. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, has made the point. But the more important point, that you made, is the problem they’ve run into is, for years, what they’ve said was, “We’re going to get government out of your health care and the Affordable Care Act is a Bolshevik takeover of America’s health care system.” I don’t agree with that characterization, but that’s what they said. Then along comes President Trump, and he wins election promising to the American people that they’re going to have better health care, that it’s going to be more affordable, that there’s going to be more coverage. This bill does none of those things. So this bill, maybe it’s consistent with the view that we ought to get government out of your health care, although it’s not very precise about how it does that. But it certainly doesn’t honor the commitments the president made during the campaign.

7:40 Denver7’s Blair Miller

And you talk about that, and I think it was Chuck Grassley who said the other day that, “Look, at this point we’re kind of fulfilling a campaign promise.”

7:47 Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)

And that’s the amazing thing. So it’s not surprising people are fulfilling campaign promises, because that happens sometimes. It’s amazing that people would be this blatant about it. I mean for people to say things like, “This is our last chance to repeal Obamacare.” No it’s not! There is the window that’s closing to get only 50 votes, but just to quote Mitch McConnell, “It would be better and more enduring—this is what he said during the Affordable Care Act—to pass something with 60 votes than with 50 votes.” That will require Republicans and Democrats to work together. And as we were talking about earlier, I do not have great confidence in this bill, but I do have great confidence in Lamar Alexander’s leadership of our committee. And he is a Republican. And Patty Murray’s a Democrat. They work well together. I know people I Colorado in general, obviously there are exceptions on both sides, but in general, who would like to see that process move forward in a bipartisan way.

8:50 Denver7’s Blair Miller

Apparently this CNN thing is still happening on Monday. Do you have any thoughts on that whole debate that was set up?

9:02 Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)

Not really. I don’t have a thought about it at all.

9:06 Denver7’s Blair Miller

Should this bill fail, where do you think you guys as the Senate need to go?

9:16 Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)

Look, first of all, I wouldn’t take anything for granted. I think there’s a real possibility that Mitch McConnell finds these votes. He’s a wily legislator and he’s looking for them. But if it fails, we have a roadmap! It’s the work that’s being done in the health committee right now, and that’s work I’d like to get back to. We’ll finish off the testimony we’re taking from the American people, write a bill, pass a bill, and move on to some other discussions. The other thing that is important to recognize about all this is the discussion we’re having right now in the health committee only related to 7% of the people that are insured in this country—6 or 7 percent in the individual market. When I travel Colorado—and that market, and dealing with that market, has been the source of the political confrontation that we’ve had over the past 10 years in America. Meanwhile, there are families and small businesses and students and communities that are actually trying to figure out how to navigate a health care system that’s not working well for them. That doesn’t have to do with Obamacare or not. If some people support it because they’re Democrats, some people don’t because they’re Republicans, and there are other people in between. How people intersect—whether they support it or not—with the American health care system is deeply dissatisfying to a lot of people and that’s what we should really be focused on instead of this continued fight over this one important, but small, part of our insurance market. How do we create more transparency so consumers can know what stuff actually costs? How do we bring prices down so we can actually starting competing again with other countries in the industrialized world—those are the questions we need to answer, and we need to answer them in a bipartisan way.

11:05 Denver7’s Blair Miller

One more question. Beyond health care, after whatever happens before Sept. 30, what else do you guys really need to get done?

11:14 Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)

I would say the most important thing that we need to get done right in front of us—well, there  are two. One, we’ve got to get a budget agreement so we don’t shut our government down and once again create self-inflicted wounds that hurt nobody but people living in states like Colorado. So that’s one important piece. The second thing we’ve really got to do is we’ve got to pass the Dreamer legislation through the Senate and the House. We’re now in a position where Donald Trump has said he supports it, Paul Ryan has said he supports it, the Democrats obviously support it, so we need to get it done. I was just over at the Auraria Campus doing a history day celebration with a student who is a DACA student and is trying to apply for college, and has absolutely no idea what this is all going to mean for him. That’s why we’ve got to get all of this done.

12:02 Denver7’s Blair Miller

How was it getting Cory Gardner on-board?

12:06 Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)

I think it’s great that Cory Gardner signed up. We signed up together to endorse the DREAM Act. I think that was a real example of leadership, and I hope there are other Republicans in the Senate that will follow what he’s done.