Liberal Dems alarmed by public option move

Liberal Democrats are alarmed by President Barack Obama’s weakening support for a “public option” to compete with private insurance companies as part of his healthcare initiative.

“Leaving private insurance companies the job of controlling the costs of healthcare is like making a pyromaniac the fire chief,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.).

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Weiner, who helped negotiate a deal to get the bill out of the Energy and Commerce Committee, told CNBC the concession might win votes in the Senate, but could lose 100 Democratic votes in the House. If Republicans vote en masse against it, that would be enough to sink the bill.

But the White House is insisting the president wants a public plan in the health care bill. And a Democratic aide said Obama's shift is aimed at spurring the process along in the Senate, where the public option is less popular and the Senate Finance Committee hasn't been able to complete a bill.

“If that means he needs to relieve pressure to get the bill out of the Senate Finance Committee, he needs to do that,” the aide said. “He's trying to get things moving. Then there will be another discussion about public option.”

The aide insisted that chamber will vote in September on a healthcare bill that includes the public insurance option prized by liberals.

“We will vote in September on a public option,” said the Democratic aide. “I don't see how a bill can pass the House without a public option.”

But the shift will add currency to the argument of centrist Democrats and vulnerable members from conservative districts who say its too much of a political risk to force a difficult vote on a public plan when it has little chance of becoming law.

“I don't see how we ask our guys to walk the plank on this, considering the president is now walking away from it,” said a senior Democratic aide.

Obama and top administration officials this weekend dropped the president’s longtime insistence that the health legislation include a government-run public plan amid widespread flare-ups of outrage at town halls across the country,

“The public option, whether we have it or we don’t have it, is not the entirety of healthcare reform,” Obama said at a town hall event in Colorado on Saturday. “This is just one sliver of it. One aspect of it."

On Sunday talk shows, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said it is not “essential” that a public option be in legislation, while White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, speaking on a different Sunday morning talk show, stopped far short of insisting on a public plan. And Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) called efforts to pass a public plan a “wasted effort” because the votes aren't there in the Senate.

The White House also has put out a statement saying Obama “believes the public option is the best way to achieve” lower costs, improve access and spark competition.

And some think that the administration’s statements on the public plan have been exaggerated.

“There's several essential options to reform, and the public option is one of them,” said Richard Kirsch, national campaign manager for Health Care for America Now. “I think that too much is being read into this."

While Republicans have termed the public option a “government takeover” of healthcare, supporters say it is needed to provide competition to insurance companies.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said on CNBC this morning that he's “heartened” by the administration's backpedaling. But Republican aides say that if the public option is replaced with the plan for cooperatives gaining steam in the Senate, Republicans probably still won't support it.

"We think it's just another term for public option," said a Republican aide.

House liberals have made a “robust” public option their signature issue, with 60 members signing a letter threatening to vote against the bill if it included changes they believe weaken the bill. Dropping it altogether could provoke a stronger reaction.

But House leaders appear to be betting that liberals will relent, unwilling to be responsible for defeating Obama's top priority in his first year in office.

Asked if liberal lawmakers would defeat the bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on July 31 bluntly said, “Are you asking me, 'Are progressives going to vote against universal, quality affordable healthcare for all Americans?’ No way.”

Former Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean has said lawmakers who vote against a public plan could face primary challenges. On MSNBC this morning, he said he thinks party leaders will back down to the party's centrists and include a public plan.

If the health reform bill comes to a floor vote, Dean said, “Blue Dogs are not going to vote against a healthcare bill — they can’t do that.”

The 2004 presidential candidate said that without the public option, Congress should strip funding from the bill and focus on “insurance reform” that would correct problems in the market.

This story was posted at 12:33 and updated at 1:41 p.m.