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Scott, Cantor Wage a Friendly Battle

Bill Clark/Roll Call
A bipartisan town hall meeting on Monday featured none of the fireworks so common this summer, as Virginia Reps. Eric Cantor (left) and Bobby Scott shared a stage — and many positions.

RICHMOND, Va. — Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), one of President Barack Obama’s harshest critics, found plenty of common ground on health care reform Monday as he faced off at a town hall meeting here with one of the president’s most ardent supporters.

There were few fireworks between Cantor and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) during the rare bipartisan session, as both Members acknowledged that Democrats and Republicans agree on 80 percent of the contents of the House health care reform legislation.

“I like the bipartisan nature of this,” Cantor told reporters after the event. “If we could do more of this, more not only in this district, I think it is a great opportunity for the country that maybe Members are going to ... have some attempt at least at working together.”

The gentility was not an accident. Republicans are anxious to shed the “party of no” label that Democrats have worked to stick them with, conscious that voters are looking for solutions on health care and other areas.

“The ascendancy of our party is going to be premised on whether people really believe that we are deserving of leadership again, not that we are throwing bombs and obstructing,” Cantor said. Voters need to think “that we are thoughtful, responsible and that we could really be stewards again of tax dollars at the federal level.”

Scott acknowledged that there is bipartisan agreement on some issues in the House bill such as barring insurance companies from rejecting those with pre-existing- conditions, but cautioned it is impossible to separate the feel-good bipartisan elements from the controversial 20 percent of the bill.

“Unless you have universal coverage, the pre-existing condition problem cannot be solved,” Scott said. “If people can wait to buy insurance until they get sick, the only people that will buy insurance are those that are sick, and the average cost will go up.”

Scott and Cantor faced about a dozen questions on two of the most controversial health care subjects — the public insurance option and the costs of an overhaul.

More than 200 people attended the 90-minute “public square” event sponsored by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Questioners kept a civil tone throughout the forum and largely stuck to the two-minute time limit imposed by the moderator, Tom Silvestri, president and publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Cantor spent most of Monday’s forum arguing against the public insurance option and promoting the areas where he believes Republicans and Democrats could agree.

In particular, Cantor argued that both parties agree that any overhaul should bar discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, allow for portable health insurance and include medical liability reforms.

“The best way to control the cost [of health insurance] is competition,” Cantor said. “We should be putting in place incentives [at the federal level] for states to have compacts with each other.”

He said if individuals could buy insurance outside of the state, insurance companies would be forced to compete with each other.

Scott focused on the merits of the House Democratic proposals and compared the public insurance option to Medicare and Medicaid.

“Government Medicare and Medicaid have polled higher than private insurance based on polls,” Scott said.

Scott conceded the price tag associated with the House Democratic health care reform bills is high — estimated at more than $1 trillion over 10 years — but argued that the measure would be paid for unlike other priorities such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After the forum, Cantor said he was confident health care reform will pass the House in some form this year — although he said the threat of a public insurance option still looms large.

Several of Cantor’s Republican colleagues in the House and Senate have declared the public health insurance to be dead upon arrival over the past two weeks.

“I think that something will emerge,” Cantor told reporters after the meeting, which was held just outside his Congressional district. “It’s that important for this administration to show it can deliver on something. It hasn’t delivered on anything other than the stimulus bill thus far.”

Cantor also suggested the public option could be put in the bill as an “invisible public option” in the form of a “trigger” mechanism or as a public co-op.

“I’m not convinced that the public option is dead,” Cantor said.

He added that he had heard Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) expected to have a bill in the House as early as next month.

“I’m interested to see what kind of bill comes out there because of her insistence that it have a public option in it,” he said. “She won’t get much Republican support if that is the case.”

After the forum, several attendees who asked questions said they weren’t satisfied with the answers they received from either Congressman.

“It doesn’t have to be called a public option, but it’s got to be something [where lawmakers can] show me how it works,” said Marlee Skinner, a registered nurse from Richmond who asked Cantor whether Republicans had an alternative to the public insurance option.

Skinner said she would continue to call Scott and Virginia Democratic Sens. Jim Webb and Mark Warner to get some answers.

Eileen Davis, also a registered nurse from Richmond and a progressive Democrat, said, “We’re not even debating health care. We are debating the managers of the health care coverage.”

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