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Mitch McConnell (AP/Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Healthy arguments

Healthcare | The debate over the government's role in health care reform heats up on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell led Republicans out of a weeklong holiday break Tuesday morning with an energetic 10-minute speech on health care reform. With the Democrats on the brink of unveiling their health care proposal that will include a government-controlled option, McConnell's speech on the Senate floor was a sure sign that Senate Republicans are prepared to make this issue their central theme over the next few weeks.

"Do we really want a government takeover of health care?" asked McConnell. "Because that's what a so-called government option could lead to in short order."

President Obama, before leaving for a Middle East trip, held a White House health care huddle with Senate Democrats to stress that creating health care reform is not merely a luxury. He called the summer legislative session a make-or-break period: "If we don't get control over costs, then it is going to be very difficult to expand coverage. These two things have to go hand in hand."

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Republicans agree that the issue is imperative, with rising health care costs and growing numbers of uninsured Americans, but the GOP differs on possible solutions. Republicans want to prevent the government from controlling health care, while Democrats desire to create a federally funded system to help provide the public with a low-cost health care package.

Former Bush-appointed Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said on Tuesday afternoon that Republicans would not embrace a plan that simply throws money at the problem, and differentiated between government "controlling" and "organizing" the system.

Leavitt and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., debated health care policies in front of a packed ballroom Tuesday at the National Press Club, the third health care highlight of a busy day on the Capitol Hill.

Critics have claimed that government-funded options are attempts at socialism, but Daschle told me after the debate, "I don't know what's socialistic about having the option to keep your own private health care plan."

Leavitt said to me, "Anytime you use taxpayer dollars, the reform will take on characteristics of a government-run system."

Daschle, who withdrew his nomination to be President Obama's Health and Human Services secretary, said the three main problems with the system now are access, quality, and cost. He added that Congress must make the "necessary investment" to solve the problem.

Daschle likened more health care choices to being able to choose between First Class, Business Class, or Coach airfares, saying consumers would ultimately be able to have more control.

In his speech earlier in the day, McConnell said, "Washington is suddenly running the banks and the auto companies. Now it's thinking about running Americans' health care." He claimed that most Americans would deeply regret such a takeover.

Because of pressure from the White House and the escalating health care issue, Leavitt said he was sure some type of reform would pass Congress this summer. Daschle was a bit more skeptical, considering the stiff contention on several key aspects: "I think there's really only a 50-50 chance that something's going to pass."

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