Schakowsky: 'Nothing has changed' on public option

The point person for House liberals on healthcare says she trusts that President Barack Obama's support for a "public option" in the health reform bill remains strong.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus's healthcare task force, said she was reassured by the White House that the president isn't weakening his position.

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"I take the administration at its word and the word is that nothing has changed," Schakowsky said.

Schakowsky said she received a "question and answer" memo Monday from the White House that laid out the president's support for a government-run option that would compete with private insurers.

The memo said that "nothing has changed" and Obama views the public option as the "best way" to achieve his healthcare goals.

Most liberal backers of the public plan have reacted with anything from alarm to outrage at what was perceived to be backtracking last weekend on the public plan issue. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said "recent comments by Obama administration officials  ... are deeply troubling."

The heads of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Congressional Black Caucus sent a joint statement to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebellius Monday saying that dropping a public option would be a "grave error."

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) said dropping a public option could cost 100 votes in the House. And Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, issued a statement saying, "A majority of the members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, will oppose any healthcare reform legislation that does not include a robust public option. Our position has not, and will not, change."

Their worries may have been reinforced by the dismissive comment of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) about their concerns. Pelosi, a fellow liberal, said there was "no way" that liberals would band together to defeat health reform.

But Schakowsky isn't the only liberal taking a less critical approach. Richard Kirsch, national campaign manager for Health Care for America Now, has said he sees no administration backtracking and finds the reaction exaggerated.

And House Democratic leadership aides have suggested that Obama did change position, but did so to coax a bill out of the Senate Finance Committee, where members have dismissed the public option. They say the public option will still be on the table once the Finance Committee produces a bill.

Pelosi herself has declined to criticize or even address the White House shift while still expressing strong support for a public option.

Obama and top administration officials this weekend appeared to back away from his 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, 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.

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

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