ABC's George Stephanopoulos on Thursday lobbied Representative Jason Altmire, a Democrat who is undecided on the health care legislation, over what it will take "to change your vote from no to yes." The former Democratic operative turned journalist pressed for details: "Well, the House bill was about, what, $950 billion. The Senate bill came in about $875 billion. What number do you need to see?"
Stephanopoulos chided Altmire over whether he was ready to take down Obama's presidency. Citing another Democrat who changed sides, he argued, "You know, yesterday, when Congressman Kucinich said he was switching from no to yes, he said one of the factors guiding his vote was the fact that if this went down, it would cripple President Obama's presidency. How big a factor is that for you?"
The ABC anchor even concocted a hypothetical situation in which Altmire held the key to everything: "Okay, Congressman, it's Sunday afternoon. The vote's been called. The clock has run out. The Democrats are stuck at 215 yes votes. Speaker Pelosi comes up to you on the floor. The President gets you on the phone and says, 'It is all up to you.' Can you imagine voting no under those circumstances?"
This isn't the first time Stephanopoulos has repeated White House talking points on health care. Talking to Congressman Bart Stupak on March 4, the journalist worried that the pro-life representative is "now threatening a mutiny over the issue of abortion."
On Thursday, Stephanopoulos did ask one tough question. Regarding the ramifications of Altmire's vote, he wondered, "You know, a lot of opponents of the bill say that if you vote yes, you're going to lose." But, that was the exception. For the most part, Stephanopoulos consistantly framed his question from the perspective of what it will take to get the health care bill passed.
A transcript of the March 18 segment, which aired at 7:06am EDT, follows:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: We're going to talk to one of those 25 undecideds right now. One of the men President Obama may be calling today, Congressman Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania. He voted against the House bill last year, now he's on the fence. He is hearing from all sides. And he joins us now from Washington. Good morning, Congressman.
REP. JASON ALTMIRE (D-PA): Good morning, George.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So, you've talked to the President at least three times so far. You're getting thousands of E-mails from your district. You have got tea party activists camped out on the other side. You feeling the heat?
ALTMIRE: Well, in my district, it's unbelievable. We're getting phone calls and E-mails by the tens of thousands on this, many of which are from the district. But, we're getting them from all around the country. There were two planes in Pittsburgh flying over the city yesterday, saying tell Altmire to vote no on health care. I've never seen anything like the passion of this. But, that's because health care is such an important issue.
STEPHANOPOULOS: It certainly is. And, as we said, you voted no the first time around on the House bill. What specifically do you need to see to change your vote from no to yes?
ALTMIRE: A couple of things. I need to see better cost containment than in previous versions of the bill. That means bringing down the cost of health care for families and businesses and seniors, Medicare beneficiaries, people who have insurance now. But also bringing it down for the government. The long-term cost protections are simply unsustainable, as you know. And previous versions of the bill had cost actually increasing for the federal government over time. I can't vote for something like that this time.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, the House bill was about, what, $950 billion. The Senate bill came in about $875 billion. What number do you need to see?
ALTMIRE: It's not about the number of the bill. It's about bringing down the cost of health care and slowing down the trajectory. I can make anything achieve balance if you raise taxes high enough. I'm not interested in just moving money around and changing who pays. I want to see systemic reform. Changes in the system that are going to incentivize quality over quantity. Because, the insurance reforms in this bill are strong. The coverage provisions are strong. But, the weak link, which you have to all do together, is delivery system reform. That's what I'm looking for.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You've spoken to the President at least three times. Take us inside those meetings and phone calls. What's his pitch?
ALTMIRE: It's a continuing conversation. I'm on one of the committees of jurisdiction. I've been in touch with the congressional leaders as well as the administration. And they know what my concerns have been. In the conversations with the President recently have been walking through what the changes in the been over time.
STEPHANOPOULOS: What does he say to you?
ALTMIRE: He says, "Look, you were concerned about cost containment in the initial version. the bill. You were concerned about the income tax increase, which is no longer in the bill. You were concerned about the employer mandate. That's no longer in the bill." And these are the reasons why he thinks we're getting closer to getting a bill I can support.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But, he hasn't sold you yet. You know, yesterday, when Congressman Kucinich said he was switching from no to yes, he said one of the factors guiding his vote was the fact that if this went down, it would cripple President Obama's presidency. How big a factor is that for you?
ALTMIRE: I'm not worried about the political implications of this. This is too important a vote. It's the biggest social policy this Congress has taken up, literally, 45 years. I have 135,000 Medicare beneficiaries in my district. That's a big part of the calculation: I'm a representative. I'm focusing on what this is going to do to impact my district.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You know, a lot of opponents of the bill say that if you vote yes, you're going to lose.
ALTMIRE: Perhaps. But whether I win or lose, or I'm in Congress or not, I still have to live in Pittsburgh. And I have to look my friends and family in the face and my neighbors. And I have to know I did the right thing. And that's what this is about. There's nothing more important than doing the job I was elected to do and that's representing my district.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Okay, Congressman, it's Sunday afternoon. The vote's been called. The clock has run out. The Democrats are stuck at 215 yes votes. Speaker Pelosi comes up to you on the floor. The President gets you on the phone and says, "It is all up to you." Can you imagine voting no under those circumstances?
ALTMIRE: I'm not going to let myself get in that circumstance, because I think I have an obligation to both sid who are counting the votes to let them know where I am. And I will more than likely make a decision before the vote so that everyone will know where I am.