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Rep. Dennis Kucinich Takes on Democratic Leaders with Insistence on Public Option, Call for Afghan Withdrawal

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Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich joins us to discuss two House debates in which he’s played a central role this week. The Ohio Democrat is threatening to vote against his party’s healthcare reform package because it does not contain a robust public option. Meanwhile, Kucinich’s bill to force the withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan was taken up on Wednesday. After a rare three-and-a-half-hour debate on the war, the majority of House Democrats joined with Republicans to defeat the measure. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We begin our show in Washington with Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who has been at the center of two important debates in the House this week.

On healthcare, the Ohio Democrat is threatening to vote against his party’s healthcare reform package because it does not contain a robust public option. With House Speaker Nancy Pelosi scrambling to get enough votes, the fate of the healthcare reform bill could come down to a single vote.

Dennis Kucinich’s bill to force the withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan was taken up on Wednesday. After a rare three-and-a-half-hour debate on the war, the majority of House Democrats joined with Republicans to defeat the measure. The vote was 356 to 65. Kucinich said he introduced the bill because he wants Congress to take responsibility for the war.

    REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: This debate today, Mr. Speaker, we will have a chance, for the first time, to reflect on our responsibility for troop casualties that are now reaching a thousand, to look at our responsibilities for the costs of the war, which approaches $250 billion; our responsibility for the civilian casualties and the human costs of the war; our responsibility for challenging the corruption that takes place in Afghanistan; our responsibility for having a real understanding of the role of the pipeline in this war; our responsibility for debating the role of counterinsurgency strategies, as opposed to counterterrorism; our responsibility for being able to make a case for the logistics of withdrawal. After eight-and-a-half years, it is time that we have this debate.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Dennis Kucinich speaking on Wednesday. During the debate on Afghanistan, Rhode Island Democrat Patrick Kennedy condemned the media for failing to cover the issue.

    REP. PATRICK KENNEDY: Finally, if anybody wants to know where cynicism is, cynicism is that there’s one — two press people in this gallery! We’re talking about Eric Massa 24/7 on the TV. We’re talking about war and peace, $3 billion, a thousand lives! And no press? No press? You want to know why the American public is fit? They’re fit because they’re not seeing their Congress do the work that they’re sent to do. It’s because the press, the press of the United States, is not covering the most significant issue of national importance, and that’s the laying of lives down in the nation for the service of our country. It is despicable, the national press corps right now!

AMY GOODMAN: Rhode Island Congress member Patrick Kennedy, the son of former senator, or the late senator, Ted Kennedy.

Well, Congress member Dennis Kucinich joins us now in Washington, DC.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about trying to invoke the War Powers Act, Congressman Kucinich.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Congress has a clear constitutional responsibility, under Article I, Section 8, but the War Powers Act is a vehicle by which we can exercise our constitutional responsibility to be able to enter into the decision-making process as to whether we keep troops at war. I felt, after a eight-and-a-half years, we had waited long enough to have the debate, and so I used the War Powers Act to create the debate.

I’m glad there was a debate. Now Congress has taken responsibility. The debate didn’t turn out the way I would have liked it to, but at least we brought it into the public’s awareness that Congress has now entered into essentially affirming the Obama administration’s policy on Afghanistan.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Were you surprised by how few Democrats, of your fellow Democrats, joined you in the vote, and in terms of compared to how many Democrats, for instance, question what was going on in the war with Iraq?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, I think that Afghanistan, for the longest time, has been kind of the silent war. Yet with the troop surge — and we’ll have more troops in Afghanistan than in Iraq — Afghanistan will begin to emerge in the public’s awareness and in the awareness of members of Congress, not only because they have to vote on supplemental appropriations and defense appropriations, but because we’ve had a debate now. They’ve had to cast a vote to either keep the war going or not. And this resolution called for essentially an end to the war by December 31st, 2010. The Congress now has to have it in its awareness, you know, and around Washington, if you’re not having to vote on something, you just don’t have to think about it. And now we have to think about Afghanistan a little bit more than we did the day before yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: Among those who supported you, Congress members of Alaska, of New York, Maxine Waters, oh, McDermott and McGovern, George Miller, Jerrold Nadler of New York, Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston, Congressman Grijalva — sixty-five for, 356 against. You’re linking the issue of the war in Afghanistan to our lack of healthcare at home. Can you talk about that link?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, we’re spending $250 billion in Afghanistan already. We have spent close to $700 billion — a little bit more than $700 billion, spent it already in Iraq. If you look at the research that Joseph Stiglitz and his assistant or co-worker Linda Bilmes have done, they’re projecting $3 trillion for the combined cost, long-term, of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now, I made a presentation on the House floor yesterday that talked about if we had chosen to spend that kind of money on matters domestically, how many schoolteachers we could hire, how many people could have healthcare, how many people could be able to have decent housing. We clearly make a choice when we choose for war. We clearly make a choice when we choose to fatten the defense budget. We make a choice when we fund counterinsurgency strategies. And as General Eisenhower said many years ago, when you are funding these bombs, that creates a shift in priorities. It takes money away from domestic matters.

So I think it’s important that we have this debate, because we cannot continue to sustain the wars when we have very high levels of unemployment, when we have so many people who are losing their homes, and we have so many people without decent healthcare. We really have to recognize that we’re making choices here, when we keep funding the wars and — you know, ad infinitum and don’t really consider that we’re wrecking a domestic agenda.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to you, Congressman Kucinich. We just have to take a break. And we also want to get your response to a blistering attack on you by Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the website Daily Kos. We’re talking to Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who tried to invoke the War Powers Act, tried to raise the issue of Afghanistan on the floor of the House, leading to a rare three-and-a-half-hour debate on the war. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Congressman, on the issue of healthcare, you’ve come under intense criticism by some commentators. Earlier this week, Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the website Daily Kos, appeared on MSNBC and slammed you for threatening to vote against the Democrats’ healthcare reform bill.

    MARKOS MOULITSAS: [I’m going to hold] people like Dennis Kucinich responsible for the 40,000 Americans that die each year from a lack of healthcare. And I don’t care if you’re a Republican or you’re a conservative Democrat or you’re somebody like Dennis Kucinich. The fact is, this does a heck of a lot for a lot of people. And like I said, it’s not perfect, it definitely needs to be improved, but it’s a first step. And God knows, it’s taken us a long time to even get our toe in the door, given the corporate interests that are arrayed against any kind of real reform. So I think this is a first step. It’s definitely not the end of the path. It’s not the ideal solution. But we are — our foot’s in the door. And if somebody like Kucinich wants to block that, I find that completely reprehensible.

    And he’s elected, not to run for president, which he seems to do every four years. He’s not elected to grandstand and to — and to give us this ideal utopian society. He’s elected to represent the people of his district, and he’s not representing the uninsured constituents in his district by pretending to take the high ground here. What he’s doing, he’s undermining this reform. He’s making common cause with the Republicans. And I think that’s a perfect excuse and a rationale for a primary challenge.

JUAN GONZALEZ: That was Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos. Congressman Kucinich, your response?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, you know, I brought the issue of single-payer healthcare before three separate meetings of the Democratic Platform Committee. I brought it into two presidential campaigns to raise the bar about what’s possible. Now I made a compromise when I backed the public option and voted for it in committee. I also had an amendment passed that would protect the rights of states to proceed with a single-payer approach at a state level. Each step along the way, I’ve shown a willingness to try to work with the White House so that we can have meaningful healthcare reform. I signed a letter, along with seventy-seven other members of Congress, saying that I would not vote for the bill unless it had a robust public option. At this point, I’m the only one left standing who has kept that pledge.

I think that we have to ask ourselves why we would have a circumstance where, you know, a week or two before a vote would come, that it would be said that this is going to come down to a single member of Congress, who stands for healthcare for all, Medicare for all, who stands for a public option, who stands to protect right of states, to pursue it, and yet, we should sweep all that aside in favor of a bill that gives the insurance companies a lock on health insurance in America, privatizes the health insurance — $70 billion-a-year subsidy to the insurance industry.

I mean, I have a responsibility to take a stand here on behalf of those who want a public option. There’s about thirty-four members of the Senate, at least, who have signed on to saying they support a public option. If I were to just concede right now and say, “Well, you know, whatever you want. All this pressure’s building. Just forget about it,” actually weakens every last-minute bit of negotiations that would try to improve the bill. So I think that it’s really critical to take this stand, because without it, there’s no real control over premiums. Without it, we have nothing in the bill except the privatization of our healthcare system.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you talk about the pressure that the members of the Progressive Caucus received on this issue and the pressure that you’ve received in recent weeks?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Listen, I’m out in my district all the time. You know, I’ve held town hall meetings in my district on healthcare over the years. I spoke to the Democratic annual dinner for Cuyahoga County on Sunday, and I laid my program out in exactly what I — you know, why I feel the way I do about this bill. And people listen.

I think pressure comes when you’re not really sure where you stand. Pressure comes when you’re willing to try to cut a deal for the sake of making a deal. You know, I’m ready to listen to the White House, if the White House is ready to listen to the concerns about putting a public option in this bill. I mean, they can do that. You know, they’re still cutting last-minute deals. Put the public option back in. Make it a robust public option. Give the people a chance to really negotiate rates with the insurance companies, where — from the standpoint of having a public option. But don’t just tell the people that you’re going to call this healthcare reform, when you’re giving insurance companies an even more powerful monopoly status in our economy.

I think that these questions are important to be asked. I have not — I’ve never been intransigent. I’ve always been able to try to find a way to work things out. But, you know, it’s a two-way street. The White House has a responsibility to produce a bill that is worthy of supporting. And you can’t say it’s taking a step in the right direction if what you’re doing is taking a step towards increasing privatization of the healthcare system.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama —-

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: You know, this is no more a -—

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Kucinich, President Obama says that the Senate bill does include single-payer language. He was talking about a provision by Senator Bernie Sanders which would allow states to use federal money to set up a single-payer system years down the road. What do you think of that?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, it provides for a waiver; it doesn’t grant the waiver. And it takes effect 2017. But by then, we’ll already have a system in place that will be very difficult to move out of. And it doesn’t cure the attack that insurance companies can make on state plans using the Employee — the ERISA Act. And so, my amendment that was passed in committee would have protected states from illegal challenge by insurance companies. The Sanders amendment doesn’t do that, so you still have the problem that, no matter what reforms are enacted, can be knocked out. I mean, I talked to the President personally about this. I’ve met with the President three times on this bill. The White House knows my position.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you included in any of the summits on healthcare? Like, were any single-payer advocates?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: No, I asked — I asked to attend. I was not granted that request. But again, you know, I have met many times with the President and with people on his staff. They know what the concerns are that I’ve expressed. And I’m not doing this on behalf of me. I’m not doing this on behalf of some special interest group, except the special interests of my constituents.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Massa — Congressman Massa says he was driven out of the House by Rahm Emanuel simply because he wasn’t going to support this bill and was a big advocate of single payer. Do you believe that?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: You know, I’m very sorry for what’s happened with Congressman Massa, but I don’t know that it has anything to do with this healthcare bill.

AMY GOODMAN: Is anything that would cause you to support the bill at this point?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, I mean, it’s — we don’t have the vote yet. The ball is still in play. The White House could decide that in order to pass the bill, they need to put public option in it, a meaningful public option. That would certainly get my attention. Or they could decide that they also want to protect the right of states to proceed with single payer, and not some place far into the future, but do it now. I mean, you have movements in Pennsylvania and in California, in my own state of Ohio, for states to be able to take responsibility for healthcare. I mean, create the possibility now. Let the momentum go in many different areas. But to say 2017 at best, and then it’s an if-come waiver to not permit the states to have legal protection against challenge by the insurance companies?

I mean, it really raises questions as to where we’re being taken with this. Remember, Medicare Part D was sold as some kind of a grand reform, turned out to be a huge bailout to the pharmaceutical companies. I’m concerned about whether or not people are really going to get healthcare from this. You know, just because you have health insurance doesn’t mean you get care. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: insurance companies make money not providing healthcare. When we want a private structure for healthcare, and we’re increasing in that — our attention in that direction, we’d better start thinking about the consequences of what happens when this bill passes, because just having coverage doesn’t mean you’re going to get care.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Congressman, I’d like to ask you about another issue: campaign finance and the recent dispute between the Supreme Court Justice — Chief Justice John Roberts and the White House. At this year’s State of the Union, President Obama openly criticized the Court’s decision in the Citizens United case.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections. I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I’d urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps correct some of these problems.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And earlier this week, Chief Justice John Roberts told law students in Alabama that he found the timing of the President’s comments to be very troubling.

    CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS: The image of having the members of one branch of government standing up, literally surrounding the Supreme Court, cheering and hollering, while the Court, according to the requirements of protocol, has to sit there expressionless, I think is very troubling. And it does cause you to think whether or not it makes sense for us to be there. To the extent the State of the Union has degenerated into a political pep rally, I’m not sure why we’re there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: That was Chief Justice Roberts. Representative Kucinich, your response to both the President’s statements and to Chief Justice Roberts’s concerns?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, the Citizens United case was very controversial. The fact of the matter is that it gave corporations even more power to influence our political process, and this is one of the central problems in our democracy today.

And, you know, the Supreme Court is the third branch of government. They should be at these grand pageants of democracy, which State of the Union addresses represent. And I don’t think they should fear being there. I think that they should welcome an opportunity. And it’s good for them to get feedback. I mean, it’s important to come off a pinnacle once in awhile and just be with everyone else who’s affected by the decisions that you make. So I think that the Chief Justice, with all respect, ought to lighten up a little bit and just realize that his presence there is very important. And if something’s said that is somehow opposed to a decision that’s made, it shouldn’t bother him at all, because, frankly, he has the last word, unless Congress passes a constitutional amendment or the process starts in a state to amend the Constitution to correct the Supreme Court’s decision. Supreme Court has a lot of power. When you have that kind of power, you surely should not be disturbed by criticism. Matter of fact, that criticism could prove to be enlightening in future decisions. But we can’t pretend that there’s no influence from the broader culture on these questions.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Kucinich, I wanted to ask you about the passing of one of the country’s leading activists on campaign finance reform, “Granny D” Haddock, who died on Tuesday at her home in Dublin, New Hampshire at a hundred years old. At her centennial birthday celebration on January 28th, she said of the Citizens United ruling, quote, “I guess the Supreme Court has burned down our little house, but, truth be told, it was pretty drafty anyway. We had not really solved the problem of too much money in politics. Not hardly. And now we have an opportunity to start clean and build a system of reforms that really will do the trick.” Congress member Kucinich, your thoughts on Granny D, as we wrap up?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: What a sweetheart Granny D was. I had a chance to get to know her in my travels both to New Hampshire and as she walked across the country. What an amazing woman, who lived her life with great passion and commitment to the highest principles of our country. Her commitment to seeing real campaign finance reform, you know, has really been a central part of a movement that tells us we have to change the way we finance elections in order to reclaim our government. She understood that, and she proved and sent a message to everyone, that no matter what your age happens to be, you can continue to make a real and a powerful contribution. And so, her memory will long live on for those of us who really know that campaign finance reform is central to reclaiming our government.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Kucinich, we want to thank you very much for being with us.

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Doris “Granny D” Haddock (1910-2010): Remembering Legendary Campaign Finance Reform Activist

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