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Bipartisan Group Of Lawmakers Seeks Common Ground On Health Care


Whether it was a repeal or a rewrite, the president's promise to tackle the Affordable Care Act remains unfulfilled, mainly because lawmakers in both the House and Senate were unable to come to an agreement over what to do.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.


PAUL RYAN: Yeah. We're going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future. I don't know how long it's going to take us to replace this law.


MITCH MCCONNELL: This is, you know, clearly a disappointing moment.


TRUMP: Boy, oh, boy, they've been working on that one for seven years. Can you believe that - the swamp.

CORNISH: But it turns out that for the last few weeks a bipartisan group of lawmakers have been trying to salvage the ideas and proposals that do have support. They call themselves the Problem Solvers Caucus. And here to talk more are co-chairs Congressman Tom Reed, Republican of New York - welcome to the program.

TOM REED: Oh, thank you for having me on.

CORNISH: And Congressman Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JOSH GOTTHEIMER: Thanks for having us.

CORNISH: Now, I understand upwards of 40 House lawmakers count themselves part of this group. And I got to ask, where have you guys been? I mean, have you been meeting in secret? And (laughter), like, has the atmosphere been so bad that you had to?

REED: Well, no. Actually we started at the end of last year coming into this congressional session. There was a group of us and said, you know what? Enough is enough. And so we've gotten together and we've organized officially with our bylaws, become a voting bloc in Congress. And we took position on the government shutdown, and now we're taking a position on the health care bill to move it forward for the American people.

CORNISH: And, Congressman Gottheimer, your party's been on the sidelines for a while. I'm guessing you and maybe some Democrats might actually want to get in the game here.

GOTTHEIMER: We do. I mean, if you're not at the table it's very hard to legislate and solve problems for people. So health care has been a pretty partisan exercise. This Congress and my colleague, Tom, and I got with a lot of people who said, let's see where we can move the ball forward.

CORNISH: So some of the proposals - I want to mention these weren't the sticking points, right? These are proposals that you guys know people more or less have some bipartisan support for. But there's also a proposal for a stability fund that states can use to reduce the cost of premiums. Now, while you're doing all this, you have President Trump out there saying, look, I'm thinking of cutting cost-sharing subsidies to insurers, right? He's described it as a bailout to insurance companies. What's your response to that? I want to start with Congressman Reed.

REED: Well, obviously, being one who endorsed Donald Trump, I think what you're hearing is a frustration that the president recognizes that if we can't solve this problem through the normal process we're going to potentially have to look at a destabilized marketplace to call the question. And I think what he's trying to do is put pressure on lawmakers to say doing nothing is unacceptable. That's why...

CORNISH: But the question is not pressure, right? Let me jump in here because the question isn't pressure, is it's - if the White House is actively trying to undermine the current state of the law, how does that not also undermine the work you're trying to do?

REED: I think this is an opening. I bet you that he will be reaching out to us. And we will start the conversation to start fixing this law and taking on the issue of health care in America and driving these costs down.

CORNISH: Congressman Gottheimer, same question to you. I mean, is there a shadow over this effort if people are talking about letting this law implode?

GOTTHEIMER: Well, I'm hoping that the Republicans, you know, in the Senate and the president see this fix as the right way to stabilize things and get premiums under control. And we need to have - if you talk to any of the companies out there and they explain why rates and premiums are way up, it's because of the uncertainty of the CSRs we've talked - the cost-sharing reduction payments. Month to month it's unclear if they're going to get made.

And so what we've agreed to here with the CSRs and with a dedicated stability fund that states can use to reduce premiums and limit losses, those two steps will get things to calm down so we can deal with all the challenges that we should be dealing with instead of playing politics with this.

CORNISH: Do you have any buy-in from your party leadership, right? What assurances do you have that this could move forward? Who wants to go first on that?

REED: Well, I can take a stab at it. Obviously we've kept our leadership informed as to what we're doing. But, you know, there's a lot of folks that wanted to go down the path of shirts and skins, Republican versus Democrat. And I know my - I know Josh Gottheimer and his Democratic colleagues are getting crucified from folks on their side, their leadership that has told them, let this implode. They're politically falling apart, and this is an opportunity for us to take the majority back in the House. And to their credit, they're putting the American people first before their political agenda.

GOTTHEIMER: And I - you know, I've been working very closely with leadership to let them know where we are each step of the way. As you know, people in both of our caucuses think that the best way is to let things go down here and go south.

And to me and to all the other people who sat around the table for the last few weeks - and you're talking about over 40 members of Congress actually sitting down and meeting regularly late at night over beer and tacos, week after week, saying, how do we actually come to some sort of agreement? I think we all believe that this is how you're supposed to legislate. You're supposed to not get everything you want, but actually fix a problem.

CORNISH: I guess to the public it's not clear whether everyone's on the same page about the idea that stabilization is the goal, right? The political rhetoric they're hearing is sabotage - no, implosion - no, work with it. It's, like, not clear that you guys all want the same thing, frankly.

REED: We both have agreed stabilization is the immediate goal. But we've also done things like committed to the waiver program so that states have the ability - commitment to innovate, maybe get sales of insurance across state lines. That's in this package, too. And we're also looking at some additional health care reforms to try to start the conversation, restabilize. But we still have to work together to fix the problems. And here are some low-hanging fruit that we think we can have a bipartisan, 60-vote type of package in the Senate that we could broadly support in the House if people want to govern.

CORNISH: So many bipartisan efforts have fallen apart. I have to ask why you feel this one's different.

GOTTHEIMER: Well, I'll say that...

REED: Well...

GOTTHEIMER: Sorry, go ahead, Tom.

REED: No, go ahead, Josh. Please, you go ahead.

GOTTHEIMER: I was just going to say that I'm new here. I ran because people are sick and tired of the partisanship and the failure of anyone to talk to each other. If you look at health care and what's gone on these last months, there's been very little, if no, attempt to actually do things in a bipartisan way. You can't let the past knock you down. You've got to stand up and actually say, how are we going to fix this here and now? And the group around that table, that's what they're committed to.

REED: Well, and I'd add love him or hate him, I will tell you the president, he is not an ideologue. I hope he can seize the moment and take this energy that we put together, Josh and I here in the Problem Solvers Caucus, and let's see if we can't put a deal together that is going to do what we want it to do for America. And that's put the people first, not Democrats and Republicans.

CORNISH: Congressman Tom Reed is a Republican from New York. Josh Gottheimer is a Democrat from New Jersey. They are co-chairs of the Problem Solvers Caucus. Gentlemen, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GOTTHEIMER: Thanks for having us. I really appreciate it.

REED: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MR. SCRUFF'S "BUNCH OF KEYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.