RNC Chairman Steele: Nation Won’t be ‘Guilted’ into Health Reform Because of Kennedy’s Death

ABC News’ Rick Klein reports: With some Democrats using Sen. Ted Kennedy’s passing as part of a rallying cry to pass health care reform, the chairman of the Republican National Committee today said his death shouldn’t change the issue’s politics -- or his party’s opposition to Democrats’ plans.

On ABCNews.com’s “Top Line,” RNC Chairman Michael Steele said he “can understand why the Democrats -- and particularly the left” are using Kennedy’s memory to urge reform, but said Kennedy’s passing shouldn’t change anything.

“I’m not of a mind to reform health care for the sake of anyone’s memory, because I’m concerned about how that impacts my mom and my dad,” Steele told us.

“While I admire the legacy of Sen. Ted Kennedy, I disagree with his view of health care for this country. That’s part of the debate. But I don’t want to see the county be guilted into a health care reform because of the passing – unfortunate passing of a great senator,” he added. “Use that memory to stoke the debate of the clear distinction between Republicans, for example, and Democrats on this issue. Where we think individual should be in power to create a bottom-up, patient-centered system, versus a top-down, government-centered system that the Democrats are proposing.”

Steele reiterated his party’s pledge not to support Medicare benefit cuts as part of health care reform, though he acknowledged that he and other Republicans do support finding savings in Medicare as part of broader entitlement reform.

“You’ve got to deal with those inefficiencies, absolutely,” he said.

Steele also criticized Attorney General Eric Holder for his decision to launch a probe of allegations of CIA detainee abuse, arguing that the Justice Department should not have oversight in intelligence matters.

“Why are we taking what is rightly in the purview of the Central Intelligence Agency and putting it in the hands of law enforcement? This is not a law-enforcement action we’re talking about here,” Steele said.

Though the Obama White House says the decision was Holder’s, Steele said he isn’t buying that.

“And don’t give me this, ‘Oh well we’re not engaged in that. He’s doing it on his own.’ You are the commander-in-chief. You are the principal law-enforcement officer of this country. And so if you don’t want it done, it doesn’t happen. Hello? Did I miss something here in the assignment of duties and responsibilities here?”

He also had some interesting comments about the future of the Republican Party -- and about former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s decision to resign her seat. Palin, he said, “made a very personal and very political decision for her to get out of the way of her state moving forward because her leadership had become a distraction with all the media attention, the attacks.”

He said Republicans would win back control of Congress “in time,” but stopped short of issuing any such predictions for 2010.

The full transcript of the interview with Michael Steele is below. You can watch the video HERE .

Also in today’s program, we chatted with Jane Hamsher of the liberal blog FireDogLake.com about what Kennedy’s life and legacy should tell us about health care reform, and about former Vice President Dick Cheney’s latest comments on interrogation techniques.

Watch the interview with Jane Hamsher HERE .

TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW WITH RNC CHAIRMAN MICHAEL STEELE, FROM ABCNEWS.COM’S “TOP LINE” 8/31/09:

David Chalian: You say here that you are going to protect Medicare and not cut it in the name of health care reform. You specified that. We know in your past it’s been okay to talk about cutting Medicare in the name of entitlement reform, dealing with deficits -- what is the difference? Why is it okay in entitlement reform, but it’s not okay in health care reform.

Michael Steele: Well it’s because it’s not currently a part of any discussion at all in terms of reforming the system. I mean everybody knows what the endgame is here, it’s going to be short of cash in four or five years. We’re talking about health care reform right now, but we’re not talking in the context of existing programs like Medicare and Medicaid, the financial trouble that they’re in. And so if you’re talking about taking $500 billion out of the system, whether you call it a transfer, you call it a cut, whatever you want to call it, you’re taking $500 billion out. What does that leave you with when you know the system is already on finance, you know, unstable turf. My goal was to call attention to that. And as part of this fall debate, as folks come back into town, and we’re talking about health care reform, let’s look at the impact it’s going to have on our Greatest Generation. The impact it’s going to have on my mother or your parents or family members who take a part of their health care from that system. And I want to make sure that if we’re going to do this reform that we’re not going to take money from a program that is already on financial hard rocks to pay for a greater growth of government in the health care area without addressing these issues.

Rick Klein: But it’s part of budget savings, that’s another story. It’s part of reforming the whole system.

Steele: Well yeah. I mean you’ve got to look at the Medicare system as a whole and see that it’s in financial trouble. So how do you correct that? What steps? And Republicans have been arguing this for 10 years now -- and they’ve gotten vilified by the Democrats in the past for even mentioning entitlement reform -- so that it is more efficient, so that there are services that are promised to you, you get. And so the cost is driven down, etc. So apart from taking $500 billion out of that, how do you do that?

DC: Part of correcting it is to keep the idea of cuts on the table, correct?

Steele: Part of correcting …

DC: Part of correcting the financial stability of Medicare.

Steele: Oh yeah. You’ve got to deal with those inefficiencies, absolutely.

RK: I want to ask you about the aftermath of Ted Kennedy’s passing. We’ve heard a rallying cry among democrats, ‘What would Teddy do. Win one for Teddy.’ In your mind is it appropriate to use Ted Kenney’s memory in this way, as an argument for health care reform?

Steele: You know I can see it. And I can understand why the Democrats and particularly the left are doing it. I mean he was a champion of this issue for a long, long time. And so I understand that aspect of it. But I’ll put it to you this way. I’m not of a mind to reform health care for the sake of anyone’s memory because I’m concerned about how that impacts my mom and my dad. And so you know while I admire the legacy of a, Senator Ted Kennedy, I disagree with his view of health care for this country. That’s part of the debate. But I don’t want to see the county be guilted into a health care reform because of the passing – unfortunate passing of a great senator. Use that memory to stoke the debate of the clear distinction between Republicans, for example, and Democrats on this issue. Where we think individual should be in power to create a bottom-up patient centered system versus a top-down government centered system that the Democrats are proposing.

DC: I’d like to turn your attention if I could to national security. You heard former Vice President Dick Cheney at the top of the show there talking about this criticism of the Obama administration for Attorney General [Eric] Holder launching this investigation in to this potential detainee abuse. And I guess I want to understand, is it not the ideal to have the Justice Department sort of removed from the political consideration, so that Attorney General Holder is making his decision?

Steele: Why are we taking what is rightly in the purview of the Central Intelligence Agency and putting it in the hands of law enforcement? This is not a law enforcement action we’re talking about here. You’re talking about individuals who commit terror –

RK: But if some of them broke the law, that is law enforcement.

Steele: What law did they break?

RK: That’s what Holder wants to look into.

Steele: What law did they break? What statutory law did they break?

RK: Isn’t that exactly what Attorney General Holder wants to look into?

Steele: This is not a criminal action. I mean the Clintons have shown the result of that approach with the first bombing of the World Trade Center. By taking that approach, by putting it in the hands of law enforcement to handle what was clearly an international terrorist happening, event, you wind up litigating the process in a way that doesn’t get you the results that you need. So put this in the hands of the capable individuals who give you the intelligence, who can act on that intelligence and help defeat the enemy that you’re engaged in. I think the vice president has it exactly right. I think the administration has it exactly wrong. But even a broader point, and the vice president made this, the president himself has says he doesn’t want to look backwards. So now he’s allowing his attorney general to do just that. And don’t give me this, ‘Oh well we’re not engaged in that. He’s doing it on his own.’ You are the commander-in-chief. You are the principal law-enforcement officer of this country. And so if you don’t want it done, it doesn’t happen. Hello? Did I miss something here in the assignment of duties and responsibilities here?

RK: You don’t think the Justice Department has any role in this.

DC: They should always just take their cues from the president.

Steele: They should take their cues from the president. The president should rely on his Central Intelligence Agencies and those who are engaged in the war on terror. Period.

DC: I want to also turn your attention now to as your party chairman role and the future of the Republican Party. I want you to take a listen to something you said on Fox News back in February about some rising stars in the party.

Steele (from Fox News interview): I’d say certainly Bobby Jindal, Sanford -- Governor Sanford, Pawlenty, Palin. We have a whole host of folks out there that are beginning to emerge on the scene and will over the next couple of years I think redefine this party in a way that it will be very good for us long term.

DC: Focusing in on a couple of the people you mentioned there, Governor Palin quit her job in the first term that the people in Alaska called on her to do for four years, and Governor Sanford didn’t tell anyone where he was going in his state and went away to Argentina to be with his mistress. And now your fellow Republicans in South Carolina are discussing the possibility of impeaching him from his governor’s office in South Carolina. Do you want a do-over on that?

Steele: No I don’t. No. You asked me the question at that time, and I told you at that time. If I knew what I know now then, my answer probably would have a little bit different. I certainly wouldn’t have put Sanford up as one of those stars in the party that we’re going to look to for leadership because he’s got other issues he’s got to deal with. On the Palin question, she made a very personal and very political decision for her to get out of the way of her state moving forward because her leadership had become a distraction with all the media attention, the attacks. She made I think a very personal decision. I respect that. Now when Mr. Jeffords [sic] is convicted of a crime, does that impugn the character of every Democrat in the nation? When the former President of the United States is caught with an intern in his, underneath his desk, does that impugn every Democrat in the country? So I don’t buy this broad brush, sweep that a lot of folks want to do to take situations involving Sanford or Palin and make it writ large for every Republican in the country. We have very good men and women that are running for office; we have two great candidates in Virginia and New Jersey who are poised to win the governorships there. We’re poised to take seats next year in the House and the Senate. So I feel good about where we are as a party. We have a lot of work to do. We have a long way to go. But I feel good about where we are.

RK: Do you win back control of the House or the Senate?

Steele: In time.

RK: 2010?

Steele: I don’t know. I’m working on it.

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