Even as President Barack Obama set August as a "make-or-break" deadline for overhauling the health care system, Tom Daschle, initally tapped by Obama to run the reform effort, predicted a "50-50 chance that something's going to pass."
The former Senate majority leader spoke Tuesday at the National Press Club, where he debated Michael Leavitt, who served as secretary of health and human services under President George W. Bush.
During the Clinton adminstration, Daschle explained, many of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle made optimistic predictions about a health overhaul, but "15 years later, we know how wrong that was." Based on his prior experiences in Congress, he said, the chances this year are "no better than 50-50," although he'd "like to think it's better than that."
Leavitt had a different take on the issue, saying there is a "political imperative" for some kind of change. But he predicted that any final legislation would represent an "incremental approach" that might include a Medicaid expansion.
Early in the debate, Daschle and Leavitt managed to find common ground on a number of issues, but later sparred over whether a public plan option should be included. Leavitt called the public plan a "Trojan Horse" that used words like "competition" and "choice" but would result in some employers' dropping coverage, denying millions of Americans the option of a private plan. Daschle responded by saying lawmakers would have to decide whether they are "designing this system for the insurance companies" or for the American people. "It's hard for me to understand how you can be a proponent of choice but an opponent of greater choice," he added, referring to those who support an insurance market with several private options but no public plan.
Daschle and Leavitt agreed that the government has a major role to play in improving the health care system. They also agreed that removing the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health care benefits could be a fair and cost-effective way to pay for an overhaul.