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Sen. Cory Booker On Health Care And The Democrats' Future


With Republican senators delaying a vote on their bill to replace the Affordable Care Act, many lawmakers on the left now see an opportunity, among them New Jersey's Cory Booker. Just outside the Capitol the other evening, Senator Booker and Congressman John Lewis were chatting about health care. And before long, a crowd gathered around with concerns of their own.

CORY BOOKER: And it was just a beautiful night. There was something magical about it in the sense that it was spontaneous, but so authentic in the sense that I think you could stand on any street corner in America and you're going to have people walking by who have been touched by Medicaid and aspects of this bill that would threaten the gains that they've made or one of their family members have made.

INSKEEP: Rachel Martin talked with Senator Booker about whether the Senate Democrats and Republicans can work together.


Where do you see common ground?

BOOKER: I actually think that this bill is being driven more by political sloganeering - we're going to repeal Obamacare, repeal Obamacare. If you look at the elements of Obamacare, overwhelmingly those elements are popular with people on the right and people on the left. And what we should be doing right now is not doing a craven, cruel bill, but sitting down and saying, OK, what is bad about Obamacare that we need to improve upon? Like, take, for example, the fact that most people in the individual marketplace are getting subsidies. But there's a group in there that have been seeing their health care costs go up, that 10 to 15 to 20 percent of people that are still facing some challenges. We still have...

MARTIN: Big challenges. I mean, in some states the premiums have gone up more than 100 percent.

BOOKER: Absolutely. And that's what we should be working on. But we have a crisis in this country with the expense of prescription drugs. What we should be doing is coming together as national leaders. We've seen this with massive legislation from Medicare to Social Security. We've seen fixes, bipartisan fixes, over the years. And this is a moment we should be doing that.

MARTIN: You mention the escalating cost of prescription drugs as a potential place to find common ground with Republicans, many of whom...


MARTIN: ...Agree that that has just gotten out of control. Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said as much on our show yesterday. What does that pressure look like? I mean, if you're trying to pressure pharmaceutical companies to lower the price of drugs, how do you do that?

BOOKER: Well, I come from a Big Pharma state. And I understand that pharmaceutical companies are making innovations that are lifesaving. But something has become terribly twisted if you can go to other countries who can buy drugs that are made and innovated on the United States and find them for dramatically less costs. So we need to open up transparency and do a lot of things that a lot of these folks who are profiting off of the backs of the sick in this country are not going to like and still have an environment where innovations can be found, investments can be made in research.

MARTIN: You're in politics, so you know that optics matter. And you yourself have faced some criticism for taking donations from drug companies. Last month you suggested you might give some of those back. Have you done that?

BOOKER: Well, we put a pause on even receiving contributions from pharma companies because it arouses so much criticism and just stopped taking it. And the other thing that we're trying to do which I'm very proud of is just focus on individual contributions from people around the country. And I'm proud that the majority of my contributions come from individual contributors, often small-dollar contributors.

MARTIN: Let me ask you to take a step back and think about where your party's at in this moment because it's no secret Democrats are hurting at this point, devastating losses in the 2016 election at national levels and the state level. The Democrats just lost a handful of special elections that your party was hoping to win. What is not working?

BOOKER: I hurt when I - in my community, you know, I could just open my door and walk out and see that there are so many people in this country that feel like their voices are not being valued, that they're not being respected. And I've traveled. I just came back from Alabama and Louisiana, going to poor communities and seeing the outrageous environmental injustices going on. I just...

MARTIN: So are those - with all due respect, are those issues just not motivating voters? I mean, the Democrats have been the party of economic prosperity and trying to lift up people who have been marginalized. But something's not getting through. What does your party have to change to start winning again?

BOOKER: So much of what people are talking about and focused on is politics and political machinations and parties trying to win. But I think if there's just an authentic, courageous compassion back in our politics where we're electing leaders that are focusing on the real problems of real people and the fact that we are losing the American dream - and I think that the current president was able to really benefit from this sense of frustration and anger. And so I want to get back to basics to start focusing on how folks are feeling nickel and dimed and don't feel like they have those planks in the economic ladder that can help them succeed and do better than their parents did before them.

MARTIN: Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. Thanks so much for your time.

BOOKER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.