updated 3/18/2010 12:42:27 PM ET 2010-03-18T16:42:27

Guest Host: Lawrence O‘Donnell

Guests: Chris Hayes, Lynn Woolsey, Markos Moulitsas, Roger Hickey, Chris Cillizza

           

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

           

LAWRENCE O‘DONNELL, GUEST HOST (voice-over):  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

The closer in chief: President Obama triggers an important defection in the fight for health care reform.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D), OHIO:  I‘ve decided to cast a vote in favor of the legislation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  What sparked the turnaround by the biggest Democratic critic?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KUCINICH:  The president‘s visit to my district on Monday underscored the urgency of this moment.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Now, can the president‘s powers of persuasion work on FOX News and its viewers?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  The reason that it needs to be done is not its affect on the presidency.  It has to do with how it‘s going to affect ordinary people who right now are desperately in need of health.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  The Obama effect and the Kucinich reversal tonight with Chris Hayes of “The Nation” and Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey.

And what about all the positioning on health care over the last year?  If this bill passes after all the threats from progressives, will it be viewed as positioning to get a better bill, or will opponents think liberals always cave?

And the usual March Madness we see this time of year, NCAA tourney time.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  That‘s my Final Four.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Are there politics buried in the president‘s picks?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  It‘s no bias.  I‘m not trying to win electoral votes in Ohio. 

I think Ohio State wins that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  And the bizarre boon to the health care industry during the tourney.  Wait until you hear what male medical procedure skyrockets this time of year.

All that and more—now on COUNTDOWN.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I‘m filling out my brackets now.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Good evening from New York.  I‘m Lawrence O‘Donnell, in for Keith Olbermann.

President Obama gave an interview to FOX News tonight, and the health care bill got an important boost today.

But first: dramatic evidence of why health care reform is so important.  A “Reuters” investigation today revealed that the insurance company Assurant used a special computer program to identify customers whose billing codes indicated HIV or other high-cost conditions, and then automatically targeted them for so-called “fraud investigations” to remove their coverage.

In a lawsuit filed by a 17-year-old student who lost his insurance after being diagnosed with HIV, South Carolina‘s Supreme Court chief justice said the company “tried to conceal the actions it took in rescinding his policy.”  A lower court is calling Assurant‘s actions reprehensible.

Today, a congressman who voted against the House bill held a widely watched news conference to announce how he will vote on the new health care bill, expected to hit the House floor within days.  Dennis Kucinich appeared on this news hour just last Monday, saying he would vote no because the bill does not do enough.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KUCINICH:  The insurance companies are the problem.  And we‘re giving them a version of a bailout.

O‘DONNELL:  So, did we just get a no there, Congressman?  Will you vote against the Senate bill at the first stage of this process?

KUCINICH:  If that sounded like a “no,” you‘re correct.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Today, after intense lobbying by President Obama, Kucinich stood by his past criticism of the bill, but explained why he will now vote for it anyway.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KUCINICH:  When I think of how people are looking for something, they‘re looking for some hope that maybe something can be changed.  You know, I kept hearing it over and over of people say, well, something is better than nothing.  Now, that‘s what I kept hearing from my constituents.  And, you know, you can argue with that if you want, but that‘s like a common folk wisdom that you keep—I kept hearing and that, and at the same time, a real desire for our president to succeed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Earlier tonight, President Obama went on FOX News to defend health care reform against its most ardent critics.  The first question: which legislative procedure will be the House of Representatives use to vote on health care.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRET BAIER, FOX NEWS:  You have said at least four times in the past two weeks, quote, “The United States Congress owes the American people a final up-or-down vote on health care.”  So do you support the use of this Slaughter Rule, the “deem and pass” rule so that Democrats avoid a straight up and down vote on the Senate bill?

OBAMA:  Well, here‘s what I think is going to happen and what should happen.  You now have a proposal from me that will be in legislation that has the toughest insurance reforms in history, makes sure that people are able to get insurance even if they‘ve got preexisting conditions, makes sure that we are reducing costs for families and small businesses by allowing them to buy in a pool, the same kind of pool that the members of Congress have.  We know that this is going to reduce the deficit by over $1 trillion.

So, you‘ve got a good package on the substance.  And I don‘t spend a lot of time worrying about what the procedural rules are in the House or the Senate.  What I—

(CROSSTALK)

OBAMA:  -- what I can tell you - what I can tell you is, is that the vote that‘s taken in the House will be a vote for health care reform.  And if people vote yes, whatever form that takes, that is going to be a vote for health care reform.  And I don‘t think we should pretend otherwise.

BAIER:  But, Mr. President, this Monday—

OBAMA:  Bret, let me finish.  And if they don‘t, if they vote against it, then they‘re going to be voting against health care reform and they‘re going to be voting in favor of the status quo.

So, Washington gets very concerned about these procedural issues in Congress.  This is always an issue that‘s—whether Republicans are in charge or Democrats are in charge, when Republicans are in charge, Democrats constantly complain that the majority was, you know, not giving them an opportunity, et cetera.

What the American people care about is the fact that their premiums are going up 25, 40, 60 percent—

BAIER:  Mr. President, let me—let me—

OBAMA:  -- and we‘re going to do something about it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  FOX turned to its e-mail pile for questions, which not surprisingly quoted FOX talking points word for word.  But the president, it turns out, gets a lot more e-mail than FOX does.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BAIER:  We asked our viewers to e-mail in suggested questions.  More than 18,000 people took time to e-mail us question.

OBAMA:  Right.

BAIER:  And these are regular people from all over the country.

OBAMA:  Right.

BAIER:  Lee Johnson, from Spring Valley, California: “If the bill is so good for all of us, why all the intimidation, arm-twisting, seedy deals and parliamentary trickery necessary to pass a bill when you have an overwhelming majority in both houses and the presidency?”  Sandy Moody in Chesterfield, Missouri: “If the health care bill is so wonderful, why do you have to bribe Congress to pass it?”

OBAMA:  Bret, I get 40,000 letters or e-mails a day.

BAIER:  I know you do.

OBAMA:  And I could read the exact same e-mails—

BAIER:  But these are real people.  It‘s not just Washington punditry.

OBAMA:  No, listen, I‘ve got exactly the same e-mails that I can show you that talk about why haven‘t we done something to make sure that I, a small business person, am getting as good as a deal as members of Congress are getting, and don‘t have my insurance rates jacked up 40 percent?  Why is it that I, a mother with a child with a preexisting condition, still can‘t get insurance?  So, the issue that I‘m concerned about is whether or not we‘re fixing a broken system.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  As a side note, if it seems as though FOX anchor Bret Baier interrupted the president a lot, that‘s because he did.  We, of course, have a highlight reel coming up.  But the following exchange was typical.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  Here‘s the thing, Bret.  I mean, the reason that I think this conversation ends up being a little frustrating is because the focus entirely is on Washington process.  And yes, I have said that is an ugly process.  It was ugly when Republicans were in charge.  It was ugly when Democrats were in charge.

And the reason -

BAIER:  This is 1/6 of the U.S. economy, though, sir.  One-sixth.

OBAMA:  And, Bret, let me tell you something.  The fact of the matter is that for the vast majority of people, their health care is not going to change because right now they‘re getting a better deal.  The only thing that is going to change for them is that they‘re going to have more security under their insurance, and they‘re going to have a better situation when it comes to if they lose their job, heaven forbid, or somebody gets sick with a preexisting condition, they‘ll have a little more security.

But so—so—

BAIER:  How can you—

OBAMA:  -- the notion—

BAIER:  -- you guarantee that they‘re not going to—

OBAMA:  -- so, Bret—

BAIER:  -- they‘re going to be able to keep their doctor—

OBAMA:  Bret, you‘ve got to let me finish my answers.

BAIER:  But, sir, I know you don‘t like the filibuster.

OBAMA:  Well, I‘m trying to answer your questions, and you keep on interrupting.  So, let me be clear.  Now, you keep on repeating the notion that it‘s 1/6 of the economy.  Yes, it‘s 1/6 of the economy, but we‘re not transforming 1/6 of the economy all in one fell swoop.

What we‘re saying is for the vast majority of people who have health care, they‘re going to be able to keep it.  But what we are saying is, is that we should have some basic protections from insurance company abuses, and that in order for us to do that, we are going to have to make some changes in the status quo that we‘ve been debating for a year.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Now, let‘s bring in FOX News watcher, Chris Hayes, Washington editor of “The Nation” magazine.

Chris, why did the president go on FOX?

CHRIS HAYES, THE NATION:  It‘s a really good question.  I mean, I think that he must think that that, you know, FOX has a lot of viewers and that their—that some percentage of those viewers are persuadable still at this sort of late stage, that there are people who are watching those programs that haven‘t made up their mind, or he can cut through the misinformation that‘s been—that‘s been so prominent on FOX itself to get to them.  I don‘t know if that‘s a correct judgment, but that‘s clearly what is motivating him going on.

O‘DONNELL:  Were you surprised by the interview style, that kind of interruption?  I mean, I‘m thinking back.  I may be wrong, but I can‘t remember a televised presidential interview of that kind where there was that kind of interrupting going on.

HAYES:  Yes, it was—it did stand out, although I actually think that‘s great.  I mean, I think that people in power should be pestered and hectored a little bit and forced to answer uncomfortable questions.  And obviously, I think that they‘re propagandizing there on behalf of this certain very narrow right-wing viewpoint.

But there was a interview, one of the very best introduce ever done with President Bush was with an Irish reporter who pressed him on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and kept interrupting and pressing.  So, you know, I don‘t think civility is the overriding value that we should think about in those kinds of interviews.  It frustrated me only because the misinformation was so thick.  But the actual approach to a presidential interview, I think, is perfectly fine.

O‘DONNELL:  You know, I started to think as I was watching them that maybe he‘s on FOX to try to show wavering Democrats, especially in Republican districts and previously Republican districts, how to argue with Republican opponents—

HAYES:  Right.

O‘DONNELL:  -- after they vote for the bill.

Do you think Democrats maybe picked up a few moves watching Obama do that today?

HAYES:  Yes.  What‘s really interesting to me is that the right-wing critique, and I‘ve gotten some e-mails from people about this, I‘ve been in sort of conversations about this, is very process-heavy right now.  I mean, everybody who listens to Rush Limbaugh and watches FOX News can tell you about the Louisiana purchase and the cornhusker kickback and the sleazy deals and the arm-twisting.  It‘s incredibly process heavy.

And what has showed up in the polls is that the more that the conversation is about process, the less people like the bill, and the more it‘s on the actual substantive things that are in the bill, the more they like the bill.  And that‘s true for me.  I think it‘s probably true for your viewers as well.  I mean, when you‘re talking about PhRMA and Billy Tauzin being in White House meetings, it doesn‘t seem like a great piece of legislation.  But when you‘re talking about ending rescission, or you‘re talking about, you know, having a real kind of regulated utility approach to the way health insurance companies work, then that sounds good.

And I think what the president, if he is modeling the argument for Democrats, the argument is, make an argument not about the process, which, again, is going to finally come to a close, that arrow isn‘t going to be in the quiver, but make it about what substantively is going to improve in the system.

O‘DONNELL:  Have they made a mistake in the House by giving them too much process to talk about?  I mean, Congressman Kucinich made no bones about his displeasure with both the “deem and pass” scenario and a lot of this legislative process.  Now, if you have Dennis Kucinich and FOX News in agreement on this procedure stuff, might that be a hint that maybe you should back off?  At least from the “deem and pass” idea.

HAYES:  Yes, I‘m of two minds.  I mean, look, if it were up to me, I think, just bite the bullet, vote for the Senate bill.  And this “deem and pass” thing, it seems like too clever by half.  I mean, is it—s it going to prevent any actual attacks?

At the same time—does anyone remember, you know, what LBJ was doing to get the vote for Medicare?  I mean, or the Civil Rights Act, or whatever significant piece of legislation?  And the more recent example is Medicare Part D with Tom DeLay which was, you know, some of the most—it was arm-twisting so severe that he was actually sanctioned by the House Ethics Committee.  Medicare Part D today is popular because of what it delivers.  No one in retrospect is remembering the process.

So, I think, you know, there‘s no reason to try to be so sort of clever about this.  You should just—they should just go—do the most straightforward approach.  But at the end of the day, it does matter what the result is.  The process is not what‘s going to be remembered.

O‘DONNELL:  Chris Hayes of “The Nation”—many thanks.

HAYES:  Thank you, Lawrence.

O‘DONNELL:  At the end of their health care interview, Bret Baier had the grace to apologize to President Obama for his many interruptions—and in doing so, talked over the president as he tried to respond.

The interruptions were unusual both because most news organizations—as I‘ve said—tend to defer to the Office of the President in matters of conversational decorum in that kind of setting, and also because it is just impossible to imagine anyone from FOX interrupting former President Bush or Vice President Cheney in the manner that you are about to see.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

BAIER:  We are interviewing President Barack Obama.

OBAMA:  I don‘t spend a lot of time worrying about what the procedural rules are in the House or the Senate.  What I can tell you—

(CROSSTALK)

BAIER:  You put this measure—but Mr. President, this Monday—

OBAMA:  -- bankrupt because of health care.

BAIER:  So, we have—

OBAMA:  And so, we‘re going to do something about it.

BAIER:  Mr. President, let me insert this.  Let me get to some of the specifics on substance, not process.  So you don‘t buy—

OBAMA:  And in the meantime -- 

BAIER:  -- the CBO or the actuary—

OBAMA:  I could read the exact same e-mails.

BAIER:  But these are real people.  It‘s not just Washington punditry.

OBAMA:  No, we‘re fixing a broken system.

BAIER:  OK, back to the original question.

OBAMA:  And the key—the key—I am not -- 

BAIER:  You‘re saying that‘s not that vote.

OBAMA:  Small businesses are helped.  That‘s what they‘re concerned.

(CROSSTALK)

BAIER:  Do you know which ones are still -- 

OBAMA:  Hold on a second.  Hold on a second, Bret.  They are—

BAIER:  I know you don‘t like to talk about process.  You called it an ugly process.

(CROSSTALK)

BAIER:  This is 1/6 of the U.S. economy, though, sir.  So, how can you

you guarantee that they‘re not going to—they‘re going to be able to keep their doctor.

           

OBAMA:  Bret, you‘ve got to let me finish.  For seven hours—

BAIER:  Mr. President, you couldn‘t tell me that the special deals are

that are in or not?  Mr. President, I‘m getting wrapped up, and I don‘t want to interrupt you.

           

I apologize for interrupting you, sir.

OBAMA:  And that‘s OK.  That‘s your job.

BAIER:  I tried to get the most for our buck here.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

O‘DONNELL:  Coming up: Nancy Pelosi‘s efforts to get to 216.  Will it fall into place once the cost of the legislation is announced?  The latest on the Capitol Hill arm-twisting with Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey.

And later, the presidential picks for the big dance.  President Obama nailed the last year‘s NCAA winner.  Who is he picking this time?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  Coming up: The view from Capitol Hill on where support for health care reform stands tonight.  How close are the Democrats to getting 216 yes votes?  We‘ll talk to Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey and see what the impact of the Kucinich reversal has been.

And later, the progressives‘ compromise to get reform.  After taking a hard line stance for the public option, will they be believed the next time they try to play hardball?  That‘s next.

This is COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  He says he has doubts about the bill.  He says it‘s not the legislation he wants to support—yet Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio also says he will vote yes for health care reform.  The question now is: will other Democratic holdouts in the House soon follow?

After months of challenging the president from the left, Mr. Kucinich, a “no” vote on health care legislation back in November, reversed his position earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KUCINICH:  I also left it with a real sense of compassion for our president and what he‘s going through.  We have to be compassionate towards -- towards those who are called upon to make decisions for this nation.  It‘s not an—it‘s not an easy burden that he has taken up.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  With no room for error, Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership are working with the slimmest of margins to whip the votes.  CNN reports Republicans can kill the entire thing with just 11 more “no” votes.

But “The Hill” points out that following Kucinich‘s flip, momentum is building among fence-sitting Dems.  Arizona Democrats Ann Kirkpatrick, Gabrielle Giffords and Raul Grijalva along with and Dan Maffei of New York, James Oberstar of Minnesota and Dan Kildee of Michigan signaling they will or are likely to support the bill.

And in hopes of getting more legislative converts, an appeal from a higher power.  The “A.P.” reporting a group of Catholic nuns representing 60 orders are breaking ranks with bishops, sending a letter to every member of Congress, saying a vote for the bill would be life-affirming.

Time now to call in Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus.

Congresswoman, thank you very much for your time tonight.

Are you surprised that Dennis Kucinich switched his vote?  He can be a very stubborn man.

REP. LYNN WOOLSEY (D-CA), HOUSE PROGRESSIVE CAUCUS CO-CHAIR:  Well, he is a very independent man.  But I personally thought he would vote for the bill.

O‘DONNELL:  Well, let me play a sound bite for you from the Natoma Canfield.  You know, he said that he listened to his constituents.  As you heard earlier, he said—they were saying something is better than nothing.  Natoma Canfield is the woman who President Obama told the story about when he went out to Dennis Kucinich‘s district.

WOOLSEY:  Right.

O‘DONNELL:  She was on this program on Monday talking about battling leukemia with no health insurance and asking Dennis Kucinich to reconsider his vote.  This is what she said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  When Dennis Kucinich, who is the local congressman in that district has said on this show that he is going to vote against this health care bill, again, because it does not do enough.  What would you say to Dennis Kucinich, knowing what you know about the president‘s plan that they‘re hoping to vote on by the end of this week?

NATOMA CANFIELD, UNINSURED LEUKEMIA PATIENT:  Well, it just seems to me that everything needs a start.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Everything needs a start, Congresswoman.

WOOLSEY:  Right.

O‘DONNELL:  Do you think that might have been the single most important consistent that Dennis Kucinich heard from?

WOOLSEY:  Well, actually, she is everybody‘s constituent.  And Natoma is exactly why we need to pass health care and get health care started.  Then we can fix it.  But if we don‘t pass it, and if we vote with the Republicans to defeat health care reform and defeat the president of the United States, then we will have nothing to fix, nothing to make better.

And Natoma said it.  We have to start.

O‘DONNELL:  Now you put yourself in what you‘re calling the “reluctant yes” category.  What‘s the reluctant piece here?

WOOLSEY:  Well, I—I would like it to be a whole bunch better.  I mean, I started out, you know, working for a single-payer and then I was the big effort behind the robust public option.  We got a public option in the House bill that saved billions of dollars.  And we‘re not even going to have it in the Senate bill unless they man up and woman up and have an amendment that will add the public option.

But we can add a public option to a health care bill if we pass it. 

But we can‘t add a public option to nothing.

O‘DONNELL:  Now, all the names that I just listed of who have decided yes or leaning yes actually already voted yes for the House bill back in November.  But you seem to be spending a lot of energy now and the speaker is spending a lot of energy whipping votes that were already yeses, but moved into the undecided column.

How much of that do you have to do before you can start working on changing noes to yeses?

WOOLSEY:  Well, I think today was a big statement when Dennis Kucinich and Congressman Dale Kildee from Michigan both came out in favor of the bill, when both of them were against it to start with, and everybody in between.  I mean, this—this was—brought us a great step forward.

And actually, the progressives, or the liberals in the country who were polled just after Dennis made his announcement, it looks like there‘s about 3 percent of the liberals that aren‘t for the bill, or aren‘t for passing it.  All the rest are saying, you‘ve got to do something.  You‘ve got to do it now.

O‘DONNELL:  Now, Minority Leader Boehner announced today that House Republicans will try to force a vote tomorrow requiring an up-or-down vote on the Senate health care bill.  I don‘t understand Senate rules enough to know whether they can do that.

Can they somehow seize control of the House floor and make that happen?

WOOLSEY:  Well, I don‘t think so.  No.  We are the majority.

But they can cause what we call mischief.  They can keep things all wrapped up with all kinds of votes that don‘t have anything to do with health care.  And, you know, they can do that.  That‘s their right.  And if they choose to do it, they do.

But actually, I don‘t—I agree with what most of the people on your previous shows have said tonight.  It isn‘t about how we get there.  It‘s about getting there.

O‘DONNELL:  Are you in favor of this deem and pass procedure?  Or would you just assume to have a clean vote on these things and not try to use this deem and pass thing as some kind of excuse to take to voters?

WOOLSEY:  Well, actually, the deeming has been used hundreds and hundreds of times.  You‘d be just shocked at how often the Republicans used the deeming approach.  But I don‘t—personally, it doesn‘t matter to me.  The people I represent in Marin and Sonoma counties in California, they know that it‘s a step in the process.  They know that voting for deeming means I‘m voting for the Senate bill fix.  But they know I‘ll fix it if we vote for the Senate bill straight up.

O‘DONNELL:  Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, Democrat of California, thanks for your insight tonight.

WOOLSEY:  You‘re welcome.  Thank you.

O‘DONNELL:  Coming up: The even longer term effects of Dennis Kucinich changing his position on health care reform.  Next time progressives give an ultimatum over policy, will they be believed?

And as March Madness kicks into high gear, the bizarre fact you will not believe.  What medical procedure skyrockets this week as guys get ready to settle into their favorite chair and watch nonstop basketball?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  On passing the health care reform bill, President Obama has said repeatedly “do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”  But many Democrats are left wondering is this as good as it gets?  And is it really better than nothing? 

And along the way, liberals may have learned hard lessons about the strategy they chose in trying to shape this bill.  The decision of Congressman Dennis Kucinich to vote yes on the health care bill has revealed the divide among some liberals along the lines of idealism versus pragmatism.  Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas, who will join us in a moment, actually threatened to back a primary challenger against Kucinich if he voted now.  But Firedog Lake‘s Jane Hamsher asked her readers to donate money to Kucinich to encourage his stance against the current bill and to urge him to vote no. 

As for liberals drawing lines in the sand on certain elements in the health care bill, like the public option, those lines have been crossed again and again.  In August, 60 House Democrats signed a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius say they would vote no for a bill without a public option.  Dennis Kucinich was cosigner to that letter. 

Let‘s bring in Daily Kos‘s founder and publisher, Markos Moulitsas, and co-director of the Campaign for America‘s Future, Roger Hickey.  Thank you both for joining us tonight.  Both of you have worked very hard for over a year to try to push health care reform forward. 

Markos, we know that you think Dennis Kucinich did the right thing in his decision today.  Roger Hickey, what do you think of where Dennis Kucinich went, from I will absolutely not vote for this bill because it‘s not good enough just a week ago, on this program, to today, changing his mind, deciding to vote yes.  Was that the right choice? 

ROGER HICKEY, CO-DIRECTOR, CAMPAIGN FOR AMERICA‘S FUTURE:  I think Dennis Kucinich did what the country needed him to do.  He gave momentum to passage of this legislation this week.  And so among House progressives, I think you see a united constituency of liberals working to make sure that health reform gets passed and gets passed in this Congress this year.  It‘s a good sign. 

O‘DONNELL:  Markos, Democrats of different stripes said they would vote against the bill if there wasn‘t a public option in it.  Some said they would vote against it if it had the so-called Cadillac tax on union health insurance plans, and so on.  It seems like none of those threats are holding up.  And you advocated compromise when it came down to the line.  What does this mean in terms of possible future strategy on future legislation? 

MARKOS MOULITSAS, WWW.DAILYKOS.COM:  Well, there was a time to negotiate.  I think earlier on in the process, I was definitely pushing for a much more progressive piece of legislation.  Am I happy with the final outcome?  Actually, I‘m not very happy with the final outcome.  I think that the Democrats completely gave up on a real historic opportunity to provide health care that truly works for Americans, not for insurance companies, and to truly reform the system. 

So I don‘t think we‘re quite there yet.  But like I said, there was a time for negotiating.  Now I think it‘s a time to realize that we did not have the votes, that we‘re still a party too compromised by corporatist Democrats, like Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, that did their best to undermine a true populist health care reform bill. 

So we have to get what we can take, and realize that now we know who some of these corporatist Democrats are.  They can be dealt with in future primary elections.  And we‘re going to work the next few years, as this legislation is implemented, to make sure some of the more onerous parts of it are cut out and that a more progressive, more equitable, and more effective health care reform bill ends up being implemented at the end of the day. 

O‘DONNELL:  Roger Hickey, you have a lot of experience working with labor groups.  And you certainly were close to their input on this bill all year.  They, at certain points, drew lines in the sand that some of them ended up crossing.  And some of them have, like Markos, decided they want to get in the primary business.  They want to get in the business of challenging Democrats over their stance on this particular bill. 

Are you comfortable with that strategy, what could be described maybe as a purity test over, that one vote on one bill, that should decide who is the liberal and who isn‘t the liberal, and that‘s what you should mount your challenge on? 

HICKEY:  Lawrence, you‘re absolutely right.  The labor movement played a leadership role in getting the country to this moment where we‘re going to have health care reform, after years and years, decades of working for health care reform.  That‘s what the labor movement does.  They‘ve joined with allies and they‘ve put together a nationwide coalition to get the best possible bill that we could get. 

Could we have done it better?  Yes.  Are there—is there a need to put the pressure on members of Congress who are vacillating right now, to let them know, as Markos did, that they can always have a challenger in their districts if they don‘t vote for this legislation?  Yeah, that‘s a legitimate tool. 

But the good news is that labor is joining with all the other important groups in the Democratic party to demand that the Democratic party, left and right, conservative and liberal, join together to vote for this bill.  And I think that‘s what‘s going to happen this week. 

O‘DONNELL:  Markos, when do we start the clock on deciding who the liberals are?  It seems, in this discussion, that a lot of it is simply saying, OK, the only thing that matters is where you were in 2009 and 2010 on this single issue.  Some of the people—for example, some of the senators who are being called conservative Democratic senators I worked with back during the Clinton administration.  And they voted for the biggest tax increase in history, which is, you know, what I call a liberal vote. 

A lot of this stuff is forgotten.  A lot of the—not tough, but votes they have cast for Supreme Court nominee, Democratic Supreme Court nominees, they‘ve been there.  But picking one issue, could that be something that maybe, longer term, you might regret if you create, say, a primary problem that then creates a general election problem?  Maybe you lose the seat to a Republican? 

MOULITSAS:  Yeah, this isn‘t about a single vote.  This is about a pattern of votes, where you sort of basically explain to the people what your governing philosophy is.  And I think there has to be a core minimum set of progressive principles that you subscribe to if you‘re going to call yourself a Democrat.  And if you don‘t, then the Democratic party is more than—has the right—the electorate has the right to make sure that they have somebody who better represents them. 

Look, we‘re not going to knock anybody out of office who isn‘t in sync with his or her constituents.  There is nothing I can do.  There is nothing any labor union can do to make a popular politician go away, if that politician is in sync with the voters. 

What we‘re finding, though, is that a lot of these politicians who are voting no think they‘re doing so—or are doing so because they‘re answering to their corporate donors, special interests who sort of pull the strings, not because the people in the district want them to vote that way.  And those are the people who, ultimately, are going to have to worry when primary time rolls around in two years. 

O‘DONNELL:  Roger Hickey, quickly, before we go, Rahm Emanuel said earlier in the year that the only thing that mattered was getting a bill.  And what that said to me is there wasn‘t anything that Rahm Emanuel and the White House won‘t throw over the side, if they have to, to get to the point of getting a yes vote.  Is where we are now, in effect, proving Rahm right, that he was taking the liberal side for granted?  They will be there no matter what we drop out of this bill as we go along? 

HICKEY:  Listen, I would have liked to have seen the Senate move faster and more effectively to get a bill passed.  But we‘ve done the best we can, and it‘s a very strong bill that will cover 30 million Americans, will regulate the insurance industry, and will be a first step towards the next level of reform.  So we‘re accomplishing quite a bit this year—this week.  It‘s a historic week. 

O‘DONNELL:  Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos and Roger Hickey with the Campaign for America‘s Future, I really want to thank you both for coming here and joining this question, because I think it is a difficult strategic question for which I don‘t have the answer, about how liberals should approach this kind of legislation.  I really appreciate your insight on it. 

MOULITSAS:  Thanks. 

O‘DONNELL:  Coming up, President Obama takes a break from the health care fight to talk March Madness.  He picked last year‘s champion.  Who got the presidential nod this time around?

Speaking of March Madness, one medical procedure sees a 50 percent increase at this time of year.  The answer after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  For millions of American men, this weekend is perhaps the most anticipated of the year, offering the chance to do little more than watch dozens of basketball games during the opening rounds of the NCAA Men‘s Basketball tournament. 

Of course, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, for many of them, it will be remembered as the best of times and the most painful of times.  But as Erica Edwards reports, these sports fans planned it that way. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ERICA EDWARDS, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  For the next several days, it‘s all about basketball, brackets, and bags of frozen peas? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  That‘s the whole beauty of you being able to be off for the weekend. 

EDWARDS:  Men have it figured out.  If you‘re going to get it done anyway, this is the perfect time for a vasectomy. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  A little pop. 

EDWARDS:  It‘s a phenomenon that urologists like Dr. Steven Jones at the Cleveland Clinic have been noticing for several years now. 

DR. STEVEN JONES, CLEVELAND CLINIC:  Every time that we got to March Madness, you would see at least 50 percent more men than we had on other weeks. 

EDWARDS:  You heard right.  Across the country, the number of schedule vasectomies tends to jump by about half the week the men‘s NCAA basketball tournament begins. 

JONES:  We‘ll certainly see a load start early Thursday morning.  And they‘re prepared by the time the games get started.  A lot of those guys are already ready.  They‘re propped back and hopefully icing down and ready for a good weekend. 

EDWARDS:  A good weekend of doing nothing but chilling out with your feet up. 

JONES:  At least 24, 48 hours with an ice pack on.  Frozen peas and corn are often used.  Some of the guys tease about a cold beer.  I‘m not sure how well that works. 

EDWARDS:  Vasectomies are an elective surgery and shouldn‘t be taken lightly. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  You‘ll feel some pressure. 

EDWARDS:  However, keep in mind, if you‘re looking for an excuse for next year, vasectomies are reversible. 

Erica Edwards, NBC News. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O‘DONNELL:  Icing down and watching basketball, multi0tasking at its strangest. 

Coming up, the fan in chief reveals his picks for the road to the Final Four, and who will eventually be the NCAA champs.  Was it all based on the stats, or did politics play a part?  Next on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  He managed to pull off one of the greatest upsets in American political history during the 2008 Democratic primaries, and now he has picked a few upsets to win in the first round of this year‘s NCAA men‘s basketball tournament.  Today, President Obama unveiled his March Madness bracket, in what is now an official White House ritual, that is greeted with about as much anticipation as the release of the CBO score of the House reconciliation sidecar, if not more. 

You might recall, last year, the president correctly predicted that North Carolina would win it all, the same Tar Heels that he scrimmaged with in Chapel Hill during the 2008 campaign.  The president plays and watches hoops as much as his schedule allows.  He has often said that he relaxes at night by tuning in to “Sportscenter” on ESPN, and it was ESPN‘s Andy Katz that he filled out his bracket, beginning with those upsets in the first round. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANDY KATZ, ESPN CORRESPONDENT:  A couple of upsets I just want to point out real quick.  Murray State over Vanderbilt? 

OBAMA:  I like Murray State.  They have a well-balanced team, and they‘re athletic.  I like Cornell, which gave Kansas a run for its money.  I think they‘ve got a terrific team. 

And Sienna—look, I feel bad for Purdue.  Overall, though, I got killed in my bracket last year in the first round.  I ended up picking the winner, but first round just killed me.  So I‘m hoping that any mistakes I made, you corrected. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Do you hear that, Keith?  He likes Cornell.  That had to be for you.  You ought to be pleased with that one.  In the Sweet 16, the president tripped up when it came time to write in Syracuse.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KATZ:  Syracuse-Butler?

OBAMA:  I think Syracuse keeps on going. 

(CROSS TALK)

OBAMA:  Yeah, I just completely messed that up, didn‘t I? 

KATZ:  S-Y-R. 

OBAMA:  Come on.  Sorry, guys.  Malia and Sasha are going to tease me about this. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  On the scratch bracket, he filled out before the ESPN taping, you can see that President Obama did much better on the spelling of Syracuse.  Over in the south regional, the president proved that his loyalty to personal aide Reggie Love, a former Duke basketball player, only goes so far. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  And here—

KATZ:  Ooh. 

OBAMA:  -- I finally break away from Reggie love.  I picked Nova. 

KATZ:  Wow.  OK. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  The other three teams in the president‘s Final Four:

predicted champion Kansas, Kentucky, and Kansas State.  Obama envisioning a policy role for K-state coach Frank Martin. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  Kansas state down here. 

KATZ:  You ever seen Frank Martin‘s menacing glare? 

OBAMA:  I have.  He is a scary dude.  I could use him, or I could send him up to Congress to get him to vote for health care. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Let‘s call in Chris Cillizza, national political reporter for the “Washington Post,” where he writes the blog “The Fix.”  Chris, it seems that this bracket thing would be the perfect opportunity for the president to curry favor with swing states.  Why isn‘t it just filled up with schools in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania?  What is he thinking here? 

CHRIS CILLIZZA, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  You know, Larry, he actually -

he mentioned that.  He said—I think it was when he was mentioning Ohio State versus Georgetown, which, of course, we know is going to win the tournament—and he said, well, you know, it would do me well to probably pick in Ohio, but I‘m not going do that. 

He is smart about this.  He gets that the worst thing in politics—the worst thing is to be phony, is to pick just say oh, I love that team in Pennsylvania, just for electoral vote sake.  He is smart about it. 

And as you pointed out, this is somebody who takes it seriously.  I heard him talking about Murray State.  He knows probably three more things about Murray State than I do, and I spend a lot more time watching basketball, I think.  I‘m also not the president of the United States. 

O‘DONNELL:  Is it alarming then that the president knows more about this than you do, Chris?  What is going on with his work day? 

CILLIZZA:  Look, this is not a president, I don‘t think, that has drawn a lot of criticism for not working hard.  We all need—he has taken on—even Republicans would agree he has probably taken on too much, they would say.  So we all need a little time, I think, to take it easy. 

This is a guy—look, he has made clear, his love is basketball, watching it, playing it.  He has Reggie Love there, as we know.  His communications director, Dan Pfeiffer, Georgetown graduate, graduated with me, good basketball player.  He has surrounded himself with good basketball players. 

O‘DONNELL:  Now this is not just anyone making a pick.  This is somebody who picked the winner last year. 

CILLIZZA:  Sure. 

O‘DONNELL:  I got to think that the Vegas bookies are paying attention to this guy‘s picks.  What happens to the odds today after the Obama picks were out? 

CILLIZZA:  Well, you know, Larry, as a journalist, I have no money to gamble.  So it‘s only in credits. 

O‘DONNELL:  Chris, I‘m asking you only about the legal bookies.

CILLIZZA:  That‘s right. 

O‘DONNELL:  The legal bookies in Vegas. 

CILLIZZA:  Credits only. 

O‘DONNELL:  I‘m not asking about local bookies. 

CILLIZZA:  This is not surprising.  Kansas was a favorite going in.  I‘m sure more people put their money down on them after.  But look, this is a team that has been the consensus number one for most of the year.  They have senior experience in Shawn Collins (ph).  They have Cole Aldrich (ph), the big guy in the middle.  Unfortunately, they‘re in the way of my Georgetown Hoyas in the Midwest, which worries me. 

O‘DONNELL:  Is there any vote-getting opportunity for the president here?  Is this the thing where you invite House members, Senate members to sit and watch and try to coax them into voting? 

CILLIZZA:  We‘ve been down that road before.  Remember, he‘s had Super Bowl parties.  He has had receptions.  He has had cocktail parties.  I think at this point, Larry, especially this close to an election—I know some people say it‘s not that close.  It is that close in terms of political calculus, where we‘re six or so months away.  These things are not going to change.  Bipartisanship is not happening in any major way in Washington, college basketball tournament or not. 

O‘DONNELL:  Now how is Reggie Love doing?  How is he handling the president leaving his team behind there on the way to winning the whole thing? 

CILLIZZA:  I‘m a little surprised that the president went with Duke as far as they did.  I‘ve seen Duke up close.  Georgetown played them this year.  We beat them by 20.  I think it was pure Reggie Love loyalty that he went as far as to put them where he did.  I think that may come back to bite him, because I think Duke may be out in the first or second round.  I now know my e-mail inbox will be filled up with wonderful Blue Devil fans decrying my bad judgment. 

O‘DONNELL:  Not to mention how Reggie Love is going to go at him out on the court the next time. 

CILLIZZA:  Very good point. 

O‘DONNELL:  This is the guy—the president cannot fool with Reggie.  Reggie is important to literally every step the man takes.  Reggie can misdirect them off in the wrong direction any time he feels like.  He has to be extra careful with him, doesn‘t he? 

CILLIZZA:  Well, and Reggie is always the president‘s partner in basketball.  People I have talked to, who have played with him say, yeah, he is a pretty good player, but he puts great guys around him.  He always plays with Reggie.  It is helpful to have a guy who played at Duke on your team.  I think even me, mediocre basketball player, could benefit from that one. 

O‘DONNELL:  Oh, so he makes sure Reggie is on his side. 

CILLIZZA:  Correct.  He is smart.  He wants to win.  You don‘t get elected president if you don‘t think strategically in life, Larry. 

O‘DONNELL:  I get it.  I get it.  Chris Cillizza of the “Washington Post,” thanks so much for your basketball expertise. 

CILLIZZA:  Thank you, sir. 

O‘DONNELL:  That will have to do it for this Wednesday‘s edition of COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Lawrence O‘Donnell, in for Keith Olbermann.  Our MSNBC coverage continues now with “THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW.”  Good evening, Rachel.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

END   

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