Gibbs under fire over public option

The White House insisted in a fiery press briefing Tuesday that there has been no change in administration policy when it comes to President Barack Obama’s preference for a public health insurance option.

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White House press secretary Robert Gibbs also took a shot at the idea of setting up health insurance cooperatives as an alternative to a public option. He said he doesn't think “anybody has seen a level of detail so far” on the cooperatives that allows them to be endorsed or condemned.

The White House, and Gibbs in particular, have been on defense over the public option since Sunday, when Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the public option is “not essential” to a reform bill.

Lawmakers and supporters on both sides of the aisle widely read that as a concession on the part of the administration, a reading Gibbs heatedly denied Tuesday for a second day in a row.

Gibbs has insisted that the president has been “consistently dull” in saying that while he prefers the public option, his goal is to increase competition and bring down the cost of healthcare insurance.

After being repeatedly challenged Tuesday on whether Sebelius's comments represented a change in policy, Gibbs presented CNN's Ed Henry with a transcript of the president's town hall meeting in Colorado over the weekend. Gibbs said the transcript proved Sebelius had not gone off message.

When asked, however, how the White House’s refusal to demand a public option might be construed by congressional Democrats, Gibbs responded: “I'm not a Democratic member of Congress.”

Liberals in the House and Senate on Monday said a public option must be included in a final healthcare bill. But Republicans are opposing the public option en masse, and centrist Democrats in both chambers are also cool to the idea.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), the leading proponent of setting up cooperatives instead, on Sunday called the pursuit of a public option a “wasted effort” because there are not enough votes for it in the Senate.

Advocates of the public option say it is necessary to lower costs, ensure universal coverage and provide competition to private insurers. Opponents say it would drive private insurers out of business and lead to government-run healthcare.

Gibbs said earlier Tuesday that the outcry on Capitol Hill was a result of media overreaction to Sebelius's simple restatement of longstanding administration policy, and he denied that the secretary was floating a trial balloon in search of compromise.

“If it was a signal, it was a dog whistle we started blowing three months ago, and it just got picked up,” Gibbs said. “It's crazy. It's not a signal.”