(CNSNews.com) – White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs, who has avoided answering questions on whether health care negotiations should be broadcast on C-SPAN, declined to say yesterday whether President Barack Obama would advocate posting the final negotiated bill on the Internet for 72 hours before it is voted on by the House and Senate.
“I don’t know the exact answer to 72,” Gibbs told CNSNews.com on Wednesday. “I know that there have … I think health care has been the most covered story by the news media in 2009.”
Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate have complained that the process has not been transparent enough and have tried unsuccessfully to force the health care legislation to be on the Internet for at least 72 hours.
CNSNews.com followed up with Gibbs by asking specifically whether the public should have a chance to review the precise language of the bill before the vote.
“I think you all have had--we have had plenty of discussion on health care,” Gibbs said. “What has gone through the process at this point is no surprise to anyone. This is not a process that’s going to happen in 20 minutes in terms of getting an agreement and voting on it. I’m sure people will have an opportunity to see what is in the legislation.”
Both the House and Senate passed versions of health care legislation that would mandate that individuals carry health insurance or face penalties. Further, both bills would establish an “exchange” where people receiving federal subsidies to buy health insurance would have to buy a health insurance plan that has been approved by the government.
But the bills differ on several key parts. The House bill establishes a government-run plan that would compete with private insurers in the exchange and specifically bans federal funds from going to pay for any part of any health care plan that covers abortion thanks to an amendment offered by Rep. Bart Stupak (D.-Mich.) The Senate bill does not include a government-run plan and would allow federal funds to go to health insurance plans that cover abortion.
President Obama hopes Congress will vote on a final bill before he delivers his State of the Union speech, but Gibbs told reporters the president is not going to postpone the annual speech to Congress if the vote has yet to occur by then.
The Senate Finance Committee killed a GOP amendment to require the posting of the bill online for 72 hours before it is voted on.
On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama called for opening up the health care negotiations to the public by allowing C-SPAN cameras to film the negotiations. On Dec. 30, C-SPAN sent a letter to congressional leaders asking to be allowed to film the negotiations.
“President Obama, Senate and House leaders, many of your rank-and-file members, and the nation’s editorial pages have all talked about the value of transparent discussion on reforming the nation’s health care system,” wrote C-SPAN Chairman Brian Lamb.
“Now that the process has moved to the critical state of reconciliation between the chambers, we respectfully request that you allow the public full access through television, to legislation that will affect the lives of every single American,” Lamb added.
However, Gibbs has declined to take a position on the C-SPAN request.
On Jan. 5, a reporter asked at the daily White House press briefing, “C-SPAN Television News is requesting leaders of Congress to open up their debate to their cameras. And I know this is something that the president talked about on the campaign trail. Is this something that he supports, will be pushing for?”
Gibbs said, “I have – I have not seen that letter. I know the president's going to begin some discussions later today on health care in order to try to iron out the differences that remain between the House and the Senate bill and try to get something, hopefully, to his desk quite quickly.”
On Jan. 6, Chip Reid of CBS News asked Gibbs at the briefing, “During the campaign, the president on numerous occasions said words to the effect of, quoting one, ‘All of this will be done on C-SPAN in front of the public.’ Do you agree that the president is breaking an explicit campaign promise?”
“You know, Chip, we covered this yesterday, and I would refer you to yesterday's transcript.”
Reid pressed, “But today is today, and –”
Gibbs retorted, “And the answer that I would give today is similar to the one –”
Reid said, “But there was an intervening – there was an intervening meeting in which it's been reported that the president pressed the leaders in Congress to take the fast-track approach, to skip the conference committee. Did he do that?”
Gibbs said, “The president wants to get a bill to his desk as quickly as possible.”
Reid again asked, “In spite of the fact that he promised to do this on C-SPAN?”
Gibbs said, “I would refer you to what we talked about in this room yesterday.”
On Tuesday, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) sent a letter to congressional leaders asking that negotiations take place in public.
“We realize such negotiations are sensitive and that Congress prefers to conduct negotiations in private to foster frank discussion, but the health-care legislation is too important to the American people to craft in secret,” said the letter signed by SPJ President Kevin Smith.
“Every day in newspaper editorial pages across the country people from all partisan philosophies are expressing their intense interest in this issue and their hunger for information. They want to see the sausage being made. Legislation developed behind closed doors fuels paranoia, mistrust and contempt by citizens for Congress and the president,” it added.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele thinks 72 hours to review the legislation is more than reasonable.
“We're going to be looking to hold them accountable. We're going to be putting a spotlight on them,” Steele said during a Dec. 21, 2009 news conference.
“And we're going to see if, in fact, they're going to wait the 72 hours with the text of the bill to review the text of the bill and – and catch the – the cost of this thing and understand more completely what burden is going to be put on the American people,” he added.