Rahm raises eyebrows; Obama repeats favor of ‘public option’

After his chief of staff raised some eyebrows on Capitol Hill, President Obama on Tuesday issued a statement from halfway across the world reiterating his support for the creation of a government health insurance plan.

Obama has repeated time and again that he backs the so-called public option in healthcare reform, but he decided he needed to reassure liberal groups and congressional Democrats once again. Obama, who is in Russia this week, weighed in after White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told The Wall Street Journal that Obama would consider a proposal that would “trigger” a public option only if private plans failed to cover the uninsured under reform.

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In the statement, issued Tuesday morning EST, Obama said, “As I’ve said before ... one of the best ways to bring down costs, provide more choices and assure quality is a public option that will force the insurance companies to compete and keep them honest.”

Emanuel’s reported comments ruffled some feathers.

MoveOn.org was so perturbed by Emanuel’s remarks that even after the White House issued Obama’s statement, the liberal group sent a message to its massive e-mail list encouraging supporters to “call the White House switchboard and tell them you’re disappointed in Chief of Staff Emanuel’s comments supporting the ‘trigger.’”

“I have never heard that they were for the trigger, OK? So that came as a surprise to me,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Whatever the reason, Obama’s restatement of a principle he has espoused since his presidential campaign comes amid an atmosphere of uncertainty about the content and timing of the healthcare reform package the president says he wants on his desk by Oct. 15.

Though floor votes are supposed to be just weeks away, Democrats have not coalesced around some of the toughest issues in healthcare reform, such as the public option and what taxes to raise to help pay for their bill.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) predicted Tuesday that many of the toughest questions might not be settled until after the House and Senate pass their respective bills.

“I think that will be discussed over the next three months,” Hoyer said. “I don’t expect us to get a [conference] report out on healthcare much before October, and I think that will be part of the significant debate during that course of time.”

First, however, Congress must meet its own self-imposed deadline of House and Senate passage of healthcare reform bills before the chambers depart for their August recess. That timeline appears to be under threat.

Though Congress has been back from its Fourth of July recess since just Monday night, time is running short and much work is left to be done.

Three House committees are slated to begin marking up their $1 trillion-plus reform bill next week. Still, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Wednesday, the Ways and Means Committee is “struggling” with how to pay for it.

In the Senate, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee entered its third week of markup for its version of the bill, inching its way to completion.

But the Senate Finance Committee has yet to issue its proposal, which Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has been trying for months to hash out with a small group of bipartisan negotiators.

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Asked whether the committee would introduce and mark up a bill in time for floor votes before recess, Baucus responded: “Before the recess? The next recess? Oh, I hope so. That’s certainly my plan.”

Baucus and other Finance Committee members have repeated mantras for months, such as “Everything’s on the table” and “Nothing’s agreed on until everything’s agreed on.”

With less than five weeks before the Senate departs for summer recess, a markup still to be held and the need to meld what could prove very different Finance and HELP committee bills, Baucus and his colleagues continued to utter the same phrases.

“We’re not there yet,” Baucus said. “As I’ve said many times: We’re ready when we’re ready.”

“We have yet to make any decisions because, again, we’re not going to make any decisions on any part of it until we have a complete agreement,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), the originator of the public option “trigger” proposal. “Everything’s a possibility in terms of reaching an agreement.”

In both the Ways and Means and Finance committees, lawmakers also remained at work trying to figure out how to pay for their healthcare reform bill as Obama and congressional leaders have promised.

In the vacuum of information about what programs Democrats would cut and what taxes they would raise, the three House committees with jurisdiction were forced Tuesday afternoon to issue a statement blasting media outlets for reporting that the healthcare bill would cost $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

But even that statement included an acknowledgement that House Democrats still don’t know how much their bill costs or how they plan to pay for it.

“The three House committees are still working to develop legislation and have not yet received a score from CBO on the discussion draft,” said a statement from the panels’ press secretaries. “As the three chairmen have made clear, our healthcare reform legislation will be paid for and we’re still considering revenue options.”

The Finance Committee has been considering taxing some people’s workplace health benefits, but Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said they had cooled to the idea after looking at polls and hearing from constituents over the July 4 recess.

But capping the tax exclusion on health benefits is still “being discussed,” Baucus said. “That’s one of the items, yeah.”