Public health option bogs down White House

The White House continued to push back Tuesday against suggestions it has shifted its position on including a public health insurance option in healthcare legislation.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs twice on Tuesday insisted that there has been no change in administration policy, even as criticism of the administration from liberal allies filled the airwaves. Gibbs’s afternoon press conference was dominated by the issue.

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Separately, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who on Sunday said a public option was “not essential” to reform, herself said in a speech that the administration hasn’t shifted its stance.

“Here's the bottom line. Absolutely nothing has changed. We continue to support the public option that will help lower costs, give American consumers more choice and keep private insurers honest,” Sebelius said.

“The public option is a very good way to do this,” she added.

Gibbs repeated his message from a day earlier: Sebelius was not signaling a change in the administration’s position. He told reporters 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.”

Democrats themselves offered different opinions on whether the administration had changed its tune, and some liberal lawmakers rallied around the president.

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.

“I take the administration at its word and the word is that nothing has changed," Schakowsky said in an interview with The Hill.

Other liberal lawmakers have been more wary, and have sought a more firm assurance from the White House on the importance of the public option.

The heads of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Congressional Black Caucus sent a joint statement to Sebelius on Monday saying that dropping a public option would be a “grave error.”

Gibbs repeated that President Barack Obama's preferred method of increasing competition and reducing the cost of health insurance is to set up a public insurance option.

That insistence, however, is a far cry from saying Obama will veto a bill that doesn't contain such an option, which is a threat that would not sit well in the Senate Finance Committee.

Finance is the only one of five House and Senate panels working on healthcare reform that has not passed a bill; Finance has yet to produce legislation.

One of the committee's members, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), said Sunday that the public option is finished because there are not enough votes to beat a filibuster.

When asked about that Tuesday, Gibbs said he would have to talk to the White House office of legislative affairs, but “that's what a lot of people have said.”

When asked if that kind of assurance might be necessary to assuage the concerns of some on Capitol Hill, Gibbs said: “I'm not a Democratic member of Congress.”

Gibbs said Tuesday that the White House doesn't “think there's anything to clear up.” He noted that during a press conference, Obama was asked "whether there was a bright line on the public option, and he said that it was what he preferred, but he wasn't going to draw any bright lines.”

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.

Finance is looking at setting up cooperatives, and there are signs that this could draw support from Republicans.

GOP Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) on Tuesday said he is “willing to entertain” the establishment of nonprofit cooperatives. “While I haven't seen any specific details about these co-ops, I am willing to entertain any good idea as long as it covers all Americans, stresses wellness and prevention, and does not increase taxes or add to our national debt,” Burr said in a statement.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), however, said that he opposed the co-ops and that the idea would garner little if any support from his colleagues.

Mike Sorgahan contributed to this article.