White House: No change on public option

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs insisted Monday that there has been no change in President Barack Obama’s desire to see a public health insurance option be part of a healthcare bill.

Gibbs pushed back hard at reports the administration had abandoned its support for a public option one day after he and another official appeared to signal a shift.

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“I got to tell you, this is one of the more curious things I've ever seen in my life,” Gibbs told reporters on Air Force One as the president flew back to Washington from a Western trip.

Gibbs and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius created headlines Sunday when Sebelius said the public option was “not essential” to reform and Gibbs, on another show, said Obama had never drawn any lines in the sand over the option.

“I was on a Sunday show; I said the same thing about a public option that I've said for I don't know how many weeks,” Gibbs said. “[Sebelius] reiterated what the president said the day before, and you'd think there was some new policy."

Gibbs insisted that the media has misread Sunday’s comments, and that the goals the president has set forth continue to be for “choice and competition.”

“His preference is a public option,” Gibbs said. “If there are other ideas, he's happy to look at them.”

Administration officials have been careful from the beginning of the healthcare debate to avoid taking hard-line public positions on some of the more controversial aspects of the proposals on Capitol Hill.

That said, Republicans and Democrats for the most part read the weekend’s news as indicating the administration was moving away from its support for the public plan to gain support for healthcare reform from centrists, particularly in the Senate.

Some liberals expressed alarm at what they perceived as weakening support from the administration to set up a “public option” to compete with private insurance companies.

“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.).

Weiner, who helped negotiate a deal to get the bill out of the House 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.

Later on Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued a statement expressing strong support for a public option. But she did not address the comments of Obama or administration officials, and did not say whether a public option would be in the House bill to be voted on in September.

One 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.”

Still, it could be difficult to include a public option in a final bill to be considered by the House and Senate after negotiators from the two chambers work out their differences.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) on Sunday called efforts to pass a public plan a “wasted effort,” because the votes aren't there in the Senate.

But Gibbs said there has been no change in the president's language and there could be no change in Congress because members have been out of town for the August recess.

“I challenge you guys all to go back and see what we've said about this over the course of many, many, many, many months, and you'll find a boring consistency to our rhetoric,” Gibbs said Monday.

Mike Soraghan contributed to this story.