HELENA - With some prominent Republicans urging Congress to hurry up and pass national health care reform, Jim Messina, a top White House aide, said he expects Congress to debate the issue soon and President Barack Obama to sign it into law this fall.
Messina was pleased that former Republican Sens. Bob Dole of Kansas, Howard Baker of Tennessee, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and President George W. Bush's Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson have called on Congress to pass a health care reform bill as soon as possible.
"I think you're starting to see the dam break, with all these former and current (Republican) governors and members saying, 'This is the time,' " said Messina, a deputy chief of staff to Obama, in a weekend interview. "The fact is this can't be about partisan politics."
Messina oversees the White House's political effort to get a health reform bill passed, while another person oversees the policy side of the issue. He said the health care reform bill will be the first major piece of health reform enacted since Social Security in 1935 and Medicare in 1965.
A University of Montana graduate, Messina was in Missoula for homecoming festivities. He spoke at some political science and journalism classes on Thursday and Friday.
He praised his former boss, Senate Finance chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., whose bill has drawn plenty of criticism because it lacks a public option - a government-run plan that would compete with private insurers. Messina was Baucus' chief of staff before joining Obama's campaign and then White House staff.
"The fact is Max wrote a very good bill that can bring people together, and you're seeing that," Messina said. "And on Tuesday, he's going to pass it (in committee)."
Asked about the lack of a public option in the Baucus bill, Messina said it has one in the form of co-ops.
"Look, the president supports public option, but has said over and over again there are different ways to do it," Messina said. "He'd be open to those ways. We're in consultations with the House and Senate about that."
Asked about the criticism Baucus is facing over the lack of a public option in his bill, Messina said: "This is probably the most important piece of legislation that he will work on, and people feel strongly about what should or should not be in it. Typical of Max, he's spent a whole bunch of time doing his homework and is working hard to produce the best bill that he can produce."
The Senate Finance Committee historically has been a difficult committee from which to report a bill onto the Senate floor for debate, he said.
"It's the committee that killed health reform under Bill Clinton," Messina said.
Baucus has had to bring some wide-ranging interests together to write a bill that can get out of his committee and onto the floor, he said.
"Max is putting a bill together that will insure 30 some million more Americans, and it will reduce costs for people who have health insurance," Messina said.
Messina said the UM political science students asked him if it isn't weird being Obama's health care adviser, while being so close to Baucus personally that he has been likened to the senator's second son.
"The answer to that question is sorta," Messina said.
He was asked why Obama didn't write his own health care reform bill as some presidents have done.
"That's what Bill Clinton did with a thud, and it never moved," Messina said. "We took another tack, which is to give some principles of the things (Obama) absolutely wanted to see in the bill and said to Congress, 'Go figure it out, and we'll help you.' The fact is that this bill is so big it takes five committees - three in the House and two in the Senate - just to report the entire bill out."
Messina said it would be strange to have the administration propose a single bill.
"We're better off doing what we've done, which is to have committees spend months and study it and really go after it, and then meld those bills together to move things to the floor, and I think that's what you'll see us do," Messina said.
He expressed confidence the final product will be something "lots of people can support and will make lots of people proud."
"What we're saying to people is let's just take a deep breath, look at the issues and understand them," Messina said.
Health care is 18 percent of the U.S. economy, he said, and "everyone knows it's badly broken."
"Every single day, people are losing health insurance," Messina said. "Fourteen thousand people are losing health insurance every day. It has to be about doing what's right for the country."