Interview with Joe Lieberman

Sen. Joe Lieberman made headlines last week when he announced that he would vote against Sen. Harry Reid's healt-reform bill—which Reid unveiled just one day earlier—unless the public-option provision was revised. His announcement ruffled feathers on Capitol Hill, mostly because it killed the buzz around Reid's proposal just as it was gathering momentum. And after his defection to the GOP in last year's election, it provided plenty of fodder for Democratic critics, eager to unleash their pent up anger. Lieberman spoke to NEWSWEEK late last week, laying out exactly what's on the line if Democrats don't come around to his way of thinking. Excerpts:

Let's talk about your announcement this week that you would let the health-care bill proceed to the floor but you would join a Republican filibuster to block final passage if the bill hadn't changed. Why allow the bill to go to the floor at all if you have such reservations about it?
Because I believe there is an urgent necessity to adopt health-care reform this year. It's not going to happen until the debate begins. I also came to the conclusion, in conversations with [Democratic leader] Senator Reid that the prospects of changing the public-option part of the bill as he had conceived it at this point were slim to none. There are other moderate Democrats who may come to a different conclusion. That is to say they may very well wish to negotiate prior to agreeing to vote for cloture on the motion to proceed, and I respect that and I wish them well. Maybe they will come away with a different interpretation from Harry, but that's the one that I got.

People on Capitol Hill have said that you are just posturing or seeking attention. Others have said you are in the pocket of the large-insurance sector in Connecticut. What do you say to those criticisms?
[Chuckles.] I didn't do this with great eagerness, but just really what I felt was right to do, sensible to do. So here is all the political controversy again. I'd be happier doing the other things I've been doing—working on climate change and Afghanistan and homeland security and all the rest.

I understand that people impute motives. I'm glad there are a couple of health-insurance companies are in Connecticut and people work in them, but I am not at all defensive of the insurance companies. When I was attorney general of the state I sued the Connecticut insurance companies in an antitrust action. And I've always supported regulation of insurance. I will vote for an amendment to remove the federal antitrust exemption from the insurance companies because that makes sense to me.

There's a point of principle or policy here for me which is that in some kind of political rush—maybe related to the desire for some people for a single-payer system—we are doing something really unprecedented and I think unhealthy for our economic system.

Is there any formulation of a public option you could accept?
There's none on a national level. Though you could put qualifiers in, they tend to be, I think, more political compromises than sensible—maybe that is too harsh a word—economic or public-health compromises. You've got to either decide that you want to create another government health-entitlement program or you don't.

There is so much good in this bill. And I think that if we adopt it in terms of health-delivery reforms, better, more aggressive regulation of insurance and extension of coverage to people who don't have it then [the public option] is an unnecessary burden. It's really not necessary to the goals here to put this public option on this bill.

I'm trying to remind people that even in the speech that President Obama gave to the joint session of Congress, he made quite clear—as a matter of fact is was the news of the night—that while he preferred a public option, it wasn't in his mind necessary as part of health-care reform so long as the goals he had were otherwise realized. I think there is a lot in this bill that will realize those goals.

Would you be prepared to let all this other work you've described as good—the health-insurance exchanges, the expansion of Medicare, the subsidies for poorer families—fall to the wayside because of your opposition to the public option?
Yeah, I am, because as much as I want to see health-insurance reform done, I'm in a mood now that the greatest threat domestically that our country faces is from our shockingly large national debt—$12 trillion now, $9 trillion more to be added. We're going to have a hard enough time saving Medicare, which is already spending more than it is taking in, and the [Congressional Budget Office] tells us will go bankrupt in eight years. We're going to have a hard enough time saving that which we need to save for all the seniors who depend on it.

I say it's an entitlement program no matter what it is called because that is our record. Congress doesn't end up in the hole financially because it has bad motives. It usually says yes to good ideas but then doesn't pay for them, and then you end up running the risk of collapsing the entire economy at some point.

So the answer is unfortunately yes, and my retort to that is let's go with all this extraordinarily important stuff, that are all big steps in reform, and wait on this. If for some reason in two or three years from now the competition that we envision through the exchanges and through the insurance market reforms and the rest has not worked, then we can go back and take a look at this again.

Are you actively trying to get some moderates to follow your lead in voting to get the bill to the floor?
No. I'm in regular contact with the moderates. I've explained why I am doing what I am doing, but I'm not trying to convince anybody that the way I've chosen is the right way. It's the way that I concluded was the realistic way. It's also the way that expresses where I am coming on health-care reform, which is that I urgently want—and the country needs—health-care reform. I really want to be able to vote yes at the end. So to say that I would vote for the motion to proceed is a way of me making that clear, but then to say that as much as I want to vote for it, if in the end it creates a new government-run health-insurance company or has other significant deficiencies, [such as it would] would hurt the current economic recovery or add to the national debt, then I'd be forced to vote against it. But I want to get to the debate. I want to have the opportunity to try to amend. I'd prefer to make my stand on the floor during the floor debate.

One of the theories we've been kicking here is that this puts you in a good position as a credible negotiator between leadership and the moderates and Republicans who could be persuaded to vote for the bill.
That theory gives me more credit for intelligence than even I think I have. It is certainly not why I did this. I feel quite set in this set of opinions. I think Senator Reid knows that, so it's not why I did it. Now I am always talking to that group of people you are talking about particularly the moderate Democrats and [moderate Republicans] Senator Collins and Senator Snowe, so we'll always be working together, but that's not what I have in mind. I think in the end everybody will probably make their own agreements or have their own disagreements with the leadership.