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CNN CROSSFIRE

President Bush Tackles Medical Malpractice Reform

Aired January 5, 2005 - 16:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE. On the left, James Carville and Paul Begala; on the right, Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson.

In the CROSSFIRE: Changing the rules? From medical malpractice to Social Security, the Bush administration wants to change the way business gets done.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The system needs to be fixed.

(APPLAUSE)

ANNOUNCER: We'll debate the president's proposals.

And, as Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger gets ready to deliver his state of the state speech, we'll talk with one conservative critic who says California's governor is nothing but a liberal.

Today on CROSSFIRE.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: Live from the George Washington University, Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson.

(APPLAUSE)

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

President Bush says it is one of his top priorities in his second term, and it definitely ought to be. It's rewriting the laws governing medical liability. Today, the president made a pretty good case for that.

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: Well, it's always news when a man who originally became president because he won a lawsuit tries to limit your ability to punish corporations who kill or maim you. But, apparently, President Bush doesn't know the meaning of the word hypocrisy. But we'll debate that in just a moment.

First, we will start, as we always do, with the best little political briefing in television, the CROSSFIRE "Political Alert."

Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist has warned Democrats in the Senate not to use the filibuster to block President Bush's nominees to the federal courts. Senator Frist has called the practice radical and -- quote -- "nothing less than a formula for tyranny by the minority" -- unquote, strong stuff, that, but reasonable people can differ about the wisdom of the filibuster rule in the Senate.

Frist, however, is not being reasonable. He's being hypocritical, because documents released by the Center For American Progress show that Senator Frist himself voted to filibuster one of President Clinton's nominees to the federal courts.

Dr. Frist told CBS's Bob Schieffer that he had never used a filibuster to kill a nominee, but a document from AmericanProgress.org boasting that a that a filibuster that Frist supported was intended to kill a Clinton judicial nominee is now available online at AmericanProgress.org. You can see it for yourself. Dr. Frist is either suffering from memory loss or, more likely, a common condition among Republicans, acute debilitating hypocrisy.

(APPLAUSE)

CARLSON: You know, I don't know. The filibuster a completely legitimate tool. I don't think it's tyranny of the minority. And, you know, getting caught up in hypocrisy, oh, you do it, too, it is the hobble-gobble of the small minds.

(CROSSTALK)

(BELL RINGING)

BEGALA: No, it's not. I think he should be held accountable. If it was good enough for him to use it, it's good enough for Democrats to use it.

CARLSON: All right.

Well, a confirmation hearing begins tomorrow for the president's pick for attorney general. He is, of course, Alberto Gonzales. He's coming under fire now from Democrats for approving a memo liberals say led to the torture of Iraqi prisoners and suspected al Qaeda members. But Henry Cisneros, a former Clintonite, is now coming to Gonzales' defense.

In a "Wall Street Journal" op-ed today, Cisneros said Judge Gonzales is better qualified than many recent attorneys general. And Mr. Cisneros is absolutely right. He goes onto make the point that when you're elected president, hey, you get to appoint your own attorney general, if you want to, particularly when you have a mandate of the majority of the vote. And he's right on that, too.

BEGALA: This may surprise you. I agree. I wouldn't pick Judge Gonzales, but, you know, I'm not George W. Bush. I didn't win the election.

Short of somebody being incompetent or a big liar -- and I think Condoleezza Rice is both and should not be confirmed at the State Department -- but Judge Gonzales, I disagree with most of his positions on the issues, but that shouldn't be the standard. CARLSON: But I also think...

BEGALA: And I bet you the Democrats on the committee will approve him.

CARLSON: Of course they will. I believe that's true.

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: But the under -- the underlying claim that the United States government has been too mean to suspected terrorists and insurgents in Iraq I just don't think holds up.

BEGALA: No. I think there are real arguments about some of the legal arguments that Judge Gonzales put forth. I hope they come out. We need to have a debate about our policy in Iraq and our policy toward prisoners. I hope these confirmations will allow that.

But, at the end of the day, you're right.

(CROSSTALK)

(BELL RINGING)

BEGALA: The president should have his own team at the Justice Department. If that's Judge Gonzales, God bless him. I hope he wins.

CARLSON: All right.

BEGALA: Well, the folks at Media Matters For America report that, this week, Reverend Pat Robertson, one of my favorites, revealed that God told him -- quote -- "I will remove judges from the Supreme Court quickly, and their successors will refuse to sanction the attacks on religious faith" -- unquote.

God also told Reverend Robertson President Bush that will pass his Social Security and tax cut bills. God offered no prognostications on other issues, like, say, more important to me, how to fix the college bowl system, although I'm sure the lord was pleased that his Texas Longhorns won the Rose Bowl.

(LAUGHTER)

BEGALA: Look, I tried to contact God this afternoon. He had no comment.

(LAUGHTER)

BEGALA: But his son, 2,000 years ago, had nothing to say about the Supreme Court or Social Security. He did, however, want us to stop killing each other and take better care of the poor, two issues not exactly at the top of the Bush agenda.

(APPLAUSE)

CARLSON: Well, I guess I share with you -- I share with you kind of an instinctive revulsion at the cavalier use of God's name in the public sphere, particularly in the political sphere.

And so I hope that the next time Jesse Jackson gets up and tells us that Jesus supports affirmative action or set-asides on a highway program, you will stand up with me and tell him to shut up.

BEGALA: I actually like when ministers on the right or left or the center bring their faith into the public. I like that.

(LAUGHTER)

CARLSON: Oh, except when Pat Robertson does it.

BEGALA: I just -- I think it's odd when people say God talked to me and God made this prediction.

CARLSON: Actually...

(BELL RINGING)

BEGALA: First off, Supreme Court justices are there for life. And when God says, I'm going to remove some, that kind of frightens me.

CARLSON: So you like it when the left does it, but not when the right does. Well, at least you're honest. At least you're honest.

BEGALA: I don't like people quoting God. I don't like people saying, God spoke to me.

CARLSON: OK. When the Reverend Jesse Jackson does it, I hope, again, you will join me in denouncing him.

BEGALA: Jesse doesn't quote God.

CARLSON: Yes, he does.

BEGALA: He doesn't say God spoke to him.

CARLSON: Every time he does on this show.

BEGALA: No, he quotes scripture.

CARLSON: Well, Howard Dean may be one step closer to his dream, our dream, taking the reins of the Democratic National Committee.

Former Clinton White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes and former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk have both taken their names out of the running. Dean will continue to make his case at a regional DNC meeting in Atlanta this weekend, the first of four events where delegates will get to judge the candidates. Dean has even go so far as to enlist Congressman John Murtha to actively lobby on his behalf.

The two men don't exactly see eye-to-eye. Mr. Murtha of course is a conservative Democrat who supported the war in Iraq. And that's not a point lost on Murtha, who in a letter to Pennsylvania's seven delegates to the DNC last week, wrote -- quote -- "I'm not with him on all the issues, but he understands the party's problems, what we need to do and how to get there" -- end quote.

Amen, Congressman Murtha. Let's all hope Howard Dean gets his chance to lead the Democratic Party exactly where it deserves to go.

(APPLAUSE)

(LAUGHTER)

BEGALA: You know, what you missed -- what you missed in there was the big news, is when Ron Kirk, a very popular guy, pulled himself out of that race, he endorsed Martin Frost, a congressman from Dallas, a red state Democrat who also ran the Democratic Congressional Committee, who I think is a big boost to Martin Frost's campaign.

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: I saw Terry McAuliffe, the next -- still I think head of the DNC coming out of lunch yesterday standing under the awning at a restaurant in downtown Washington. And I said Howard Dean for DNC chairman.

(BELL RINGING)

CARLSON: And he looked sick to his stomach.

BEGALA: Could have been the food.

(LAUGHTER)

CARLSON: Which means it's the right choice.

BEGALA: It could have been the food.

CARLSON: As far as I'm concerned.

Well, President Bush wants to change the way government does business, from medical malpractice to Social Security. Will he get the support he needs to start changing the rules?

And actor Richard Gere says he is speaking for the world. We'll tell you what he's saying on your behalf later on CROSSFIRE. You may not know that Richard Gere is talking about you and for you. But we'll tell you what he's saying.

And then, finally, CNN has an unmatched team of top journalists on the front lines of the still developing tsunami story in South Asia. Along with checking in with us for reports on new developments through the day, tonight at 7:00, we'll bring you all the latest stories and the developments in a CNN special report, "Turning the Tide."

We'll be right back.

(APPLAUSE)

ANNOUNCER: Join Carville, Begala, Carlson and Novak in the CROSSFIRE. For free tickets to CROSSFIRE at the George Washington University, call 202-994-8CNN or visit our Web site. Now you can step into the CROSSFIRE.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(APPLAUSE)

BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

President Bush today called for an end to what he called junk lawsuits. Of course, I view him as the man who filed the biggest junk lawsuit of all time. It was called Bush v. Gore, but he fails to see the irony. Supporters say that high malpractice insurance premiums are driving good doctors out of business. Opponents say insurance companies and HMOs are the villains. But Mr. Bush is unlikely to take on some of his big corporate contributors.

Joining me to debate all that, former Republican Congressman Bob Walker from the great state of Pennsylvania and Democratic strategist Mark Mellman from -- I don't know.

What great state are you from, Mark?

MARK MELLMAN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Ohio.

BEGALA: Ohio.

CARLSON: Right.

MELLMAN: No greater state.

(APPLAUSE)

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: Mark, only a professional Democrat would deny the obvious, and that is, of course, that medical malpractice suits drive up the cost of health care. Duh. That is obvious to everyone. Why is not obvious to Democrats?

Let me suggest why not. Since 1990, lawyers have given more than half a billion dollars, $600 million, to federal campaigns. Three out of every four of dollars has gone, of course, to Democrats. Democrats have a vested interest in ignoring what everyone else knows. That is, trial lawyers are bad for medicine. That's true.

MELLMAN: Insurance companies, HMOs drive up the cost of health care in this country. Everybody knows that, except the Republicans, who depend on their campaign contribution.

The reality is, in places where they have capped malpractice, California, for example, the fact is, the premiums still keep going up. You know why? Because the people that charge the premiums are insurance companies. And they're more interested in making money than they are in having cheap health care. CARLSON: Let me just insert some numbers and facts into this conversation. This is the average payment for a medical malpractice claim.

In 1986, the average payment was $95,000. In 2002, it was $320,000. That's the average payment. What do you suggest accounts for that? That's not inflation. That's not the rise in the cost of living. It's that lawyers are making more money out of suing doctors than they ever have before and they're giving it to Democrats.

MELLMAN: Insurance companies are making more money out of charging doctors high malpractice premiums than ever before, and they do that regardless of what the verdicts are.

But the reality is, if a doctor is negligent, if anybody is negligent, they ought to pay the price. And the reality is, sometimes doctors are. Sometime, other people are negligent. Sometimes, corporations are negligent. And people ought to have the right to recover damages from those companies and from those individuals that do them damage.

Nobody in this country would -- it's hard to imagine you -- people would change the Constitution of this country, which guarantees the right to get that settlement from people who do you harm.

BEGALA: In fact -- first, good to see you again, Bob. Our...

BOB WALKER (R), FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN: Thanks, Paul. Nice to be with you.

BEGALA: Our president, to his credit, raised this issue in the campaign, hoping to build a mandate, helping to gain capital. He's trying to spend that capital. I don't agree with where he is, but I have to respect that. Here's how he raised the issue in the campaign. Here's President Bush.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: Too many good docs are getting out of business. Too many OB-GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across this country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(LAUGHTER)

BEGALA: I think what he meant by that -- I'm not entirely sure. You know, I worked in the Clinton White House. I think what he meant by that, Bob, is that the cost of the premiums are driving doctors out.

It's not lawyers who charge the premiums, is it? It is insurance companies. Mr. Mellman has a point. It's the insurance companies who are ripping off good doctors, so that they can't practice their love on women?

(LAUGHTER)

WALKER: But the fact -- the fact is -- the fact is that the insurance companies are paying out these huge fees as well. And so it is a circular kind of argument, because the insurance companies do in fact have to pay for these massive lawsuit filings. And that's what's driving up the cost.

BEGALA: If that were true...

WALKER: The fact is, in my home state of Pennsylvania, we're actually seeing the doctors get out of the business because of the kinds of insurance premiums they have to pay.

BEGALA: Right.

WALKER: And because of the fear of lawsuits.

And the other problem is that it's not just the fact that you have the lawsuits themselves that are paid out. It's the fact that every doctor practices defensive medicine against the potential of...

BEGALA: So they're extra careful not to cut the wrong leg off. I think that's good.

WALKER: No. No. No. What they do -- what they do is send -- send patients to a lot of expensive specialists to make certain that their diagnosis can be backed up. And all of those costs and so on are built into the system.

BEGALA: Good. Good. Good.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: If it's my kid, they're going to make sure.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: But let me raise -- let me bring an expert into this.

WALKER: Very, very huge cost to the overall system, and if it ends up with less doctors, your kid is not benefited by it.

BEGALA: Let me suggest what the problem here is, is that insurance companies are ripping off the docs, because if your argument is right that high payouts cause high premiums, then capping those payouts, those damage awards, should reduce the premiums.

They did it in my state of Texas. Premiums did not go down. Mark mentioned California a moment ago. Here's the guy who is a reformer in California, Doug Heller. He runs the Foundation For Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

He told "The Los Angeles Times": "What we have learned unequivocally is that caps on damages do not reduce premiums for doctors. If President Bush," he says, "really cares about lowering premiums for docs, he needs to take on the insurance industry. And he's not proposed to do that."

Why hasn't the president taken on the insurance industry?

WALKER: Well, the first thing is because the president knows...

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Could they be infallible in all this? Are they Mother Teresa?

WALKER: The first defense -- the first defense that they are going to make is the fact that you have these massive lawsuits out there. Once you get to the point that you no longer have that, where you have capped that, then you can look at whether or not the insurance companies are...

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: They've done that.

(CROSSTALK)

MELLMAN: Congressman, that's not been the problem.

(CROSSTALK)

MELLMAN: The problem is the insurance companies lost a lot of money on bad investments and that's why they need to increase their premiums.

WALKER: No, but what you can't do is take one state's situation and project that, because most of these insurance companies are large national companies that...

BEGALA: The two biggest states are California and Texas.

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: Let's get Mr. Mellman back in here.

Mark, your argument is that people who are injured by incompetent physicians deserve compensation. I don't think anybody disagrees with that. But if that's really your position....

MELLMAN: Apparently the president does.

CARLSON: ... and the Democrats are not simply shilling for the trial lawyers, as you in your heart know they are, then why wouldn't you support caps on compensation for lawyers?

In other words, if a child is injured by the ineptitude of a physician, why is the lawyer who represents that child entitled to say, you know, a third of the settlement. Why not cap it?

WALKER: Or 50 percent.

CARLSON: Why not cap -- or 50 percent. Why not cap the lawyer's compensation to, say, an hourly rate, his normal hourly rate?

MELLMAN: What should we cap your compensation at?

(LAUGHTER)

MELLMAN: We don't go around capping compensation in this country. That's not something we do.

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: Hold on. Wait. What are you -- of course we do. You have got to be kidding. Yes, of course we do.

(CROSSTALK)

MELLMAN: ... capping the compensation of private individuals.

CARLSON: Actually, first, yes, we do, do that. And second, and we have done that many times in American history. I'm not saying I'm for it. But I'm saying...

MELLMAN: In fact, you're against it.

CARLSON: No, but the point is...

(CROSSTALK)

MELLMAN: Except in this particular case.

CARLSON: The point is, if you think, if you think, if your motive here is protecting people who are injured by negligent physicians...

(CROSSTALK)

MELLMAN: Tucker, it's actually very simple. John Kerry, John Edwards, during the last campaign, put out a plan that said we ought to punish lawyers who engage in junk lawsuits. That's the way you deal with this problem. You punish lawyers who engage in junk lawsuits and you go after the insurance companies who are actually ripping off the docs.

And if you do both those things, you'll actually solve the problem. If you just go after the lawyers, if you just prevent people who have been injured from collecting money, all you're going to do is help insurance companies and prevent people who are deserving of money from getting...

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: Sadly -- I'd love to attack lawyers more, because I enjoy it, but we are completely out of time.

Mark Mellman, Congressman Walker, thank you both.

WALKER: Thank you very much. (CROSSTALK)

(APPLAUSE)

CARLSON: Well, what kind of Republican is Arnold Schwarzenegger? Is he Republican at all? Next, we'll talk with a conservative critic of the California governor who says Schwarzenegger is just another Hollywood liberal.

And just ahead, how many Americans are still missing after the tsunamis in South Asia? Wolf Blitzer has the latest on efforts to track them down.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Washington.

Coming up at the top of the hour, the U.S. tsunami death toll; 16 Americans are confirmed dead, but the State Department says another 20 Americans are now also presumed dead. Colin Powell gets a firsthand look at destruction in Sumatra. He says he was overwhelmed.

And is there serious trouble inside the U.S. Army Reserve? A surprising warns from the man who's in charge.

All those stories, much more, only minutes away on "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS."

Now back to CROSSFIRE.

CARLSON: Welcome back.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger takes the stage tonight to deliver his second state of the state address. In his year-plus since taking office, has Schwarzenegger lived up to the expectations of his fellow Republicans, the people who voted him into office?

Not by a long shot, says our next guest, conservative critic the Reverend Lou Sheldon, who joins us here.

Welcome.

REV. LOU SHELDON, TRADITIONAL VALUES COALITION: Thank you.

BEGALA: Reverend Sheldon, good to see you again.

SHELDON: Yes.

BEGALA: Governor Schwarzenegger campaigned saying he was for gay rights and abortion rights and for gun control and now he's governing on that. What's your beef?

SHELDON: Well, our point is this, that, when he says to move over across the line to the left, at the same time, people like Howard Dean is saying, let's move over across the line to the right, and let's take pro-life people. Let's stop demonizing them. And then you have other people...

BEGALA: A good idea, right?

SHELDON: Fine.

Now, the point is this, is, if you cross back over to the left and think you're going to gain 5 percent, you may end up losing 25 percent over here on the right. You got a minus-20. The point is, is that the last election reflected very clearly that people are thinking that values are important.

It's like George Washington said in his farewell address, which is a very key statement. Of all the dispositions and habits that lead to political prosperity, there's two indispensable supports, religion and morality.

CARLSON: Wait a second. Mr. Sheldon, though, I think you make some really solid points in the op-ed you wrote for "The Los Angeles Times."

Here's what I the understand. You have someone like Governor Schwarzenegger, who is openly and pretty aggressively pro-choice and very liberal on almost all social issues, including gun control. Yet, he is supported unequivocally by the White House, which is then supported unequivocally by you and other conservatives. Why don't you call up Karl Rove on the phone and say, hey, knock it off? If you want my support, you'll support pro-life politicians?

SHELDON: Well, the way the system works the best is that the president nominates the judges, and the Senate then confirms them. And, at this time, we have a majority.

And that system appears -- we don't know for sure -- may not be broken like it was under Daschle, now that we have better control in the U.S. Senate. So, Schwarzenegger is balance -- trying to bring the economy back in California. He's putting more people back to work. So, I have to take my hat off to him for a number of things he is doing.

BEGALA: But just briefly, will you ask conservatives to oppose Schwarzenegger and vote against him when he runs for reelection?

SHELDON: Well, it depends on what he does with the homosexual bill that may or may not be on his desk from Mark Leno, who wants to change...

BEGALA: There's a homosexual named Bill -- no, I'm just kidding.

Reverend Lou Sheldon, I'm sorry. They're telling me in my ear that we're out of time.

(CROSSTALK)

SHELDON: We're out of time.

BEGALA: Thank you very much.

SHELDON: All right.

BEGALA: The op-ed was in "The Los Angeles Times."

SHELDON: Yes.

BEGALA: From the Traditional Values Coalition, Reverend Lou Sheldon. Thank you very much, Reverend.

SHELDON: OK.

BEGALA: Well, another Hollywood celebrity steps on to the political stage, not just Arnold Schwarzenegger there.

When we come back, we will tell you why Richard Gere suddenly sounds an awful lot like George W. Bush in promoting democracy in the Arab world.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARLSON: Welcome back.

Well, actor Richard Gere is feeling the need to make his mark in politics, not here in our country, sadly, but in the Middle East. Gere has recorded a television commercial telling Palestinians he's speaking for the whole world, you and me, when he tells them it's really important to get out and vote in their election Sunday.

Not clear what effect Gere, a devout Buddhist, will have on the Palestinians, but good luck.

BEGALA: I think it's great he's supporting democracy in the Middle East.

CARLSON: Yes. I'm for it.

BEGALA: That's what President Bush -- and he's do it without invading a country, which is something Bush might want to try.

(APPLAUSE)

BEGALA: Well, from the left, I am Paul Begala. That's it for CROSSFIRE.

CARLSON: And from the right, I'm Tucker Carlson. Join us again tomorrow for another and a great edition of CROSSFIRE.

"WOLF BLITZER REPORTS" starts right now. Don't miss that.

And, above all, have a great night.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com


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