Tide turns against public option on eve of President Obama's address

Political momentum appeared to swing sharply against the public health insurance option prized by liberals Tuesday, on the eve of President Barack Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate on Tuesday signaled they are increasingly willing to pass healthcare reform without a public insurance option, even while Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) again insisted it must be included in a House healthcare bill.

ADVERTISEMENT
Following a White House meeting with the president and Vice President Joe Biden, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) gave few clues on what Obama would say.

But a Democratic leadership aide who sat in on an administration briefing Tuesday said that while Obama will offer support Wednesday for a public option, the president will not insist on it.

“He’s going to say it’s the best tool for reducing costs,” the aide said. “I think he’s going to be a bit noncommittal.”

The leadership aide said Obama will use the address to move forward after a brutal recess. “He’s going to quickly turn the page on August,” the aide said.

Conservatives in August often had the president playing defense on healthcare. Obama also took flak from liberals peeved after his administration signaled a public option was not essential.

Centrist Democrats, who were skeptical about the public option in July, have hardened into outright opponents after hearing a deluge of constituent complaints.
Reid, who plans to play a bigger role in the healthcare debate this fall, took a noncommittal stance on the issue Tuesday.

He delivered a speech on the Senate floor that left the need for a government-run program unmentioned. At a press conference at the White House following his and Pelosi’s meeting with Obama, Reid said the Senate would try to pass a public option “or something like a public option” but stopped far short of the impassioned plea Pelosi delivered at his side. The Speaker once again declared that healthcare reform without a public option would not pass the House.

But even Pelosi gave her self some room for compromise. Asked about an alternative proposal in which a public option would trigger if private insurers do not meet certain benchmarks, Pelosi said “right now” the House bill has a public option.Reid said he personally favored the public option, and that the Senate would try its “very best” to approve one.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Tuesday reiterated his comments from earlier this summer that he would prefer to pass healthcare reform rather than insist on a public option.

And Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), the lead negotiator for the Blue Dog Coalition, a bloc of about 50 Democratic conservatives in the House, declared Tuesday he would oppose the public option. He said an “overwhelming number” of his constituents had told him they opposed a government-run health insurance option, “and it is your feedback that has led me to oppose the public option as well.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said it’s time for Pelosi to wake up to the growing opposition to her position.

ADVERTISEMENT
Obama should convince “Speaker Pelosi and others that the [public option] is a distraction and it’s not the main event,” Lieberman said during a television interview on Tuesday.

Lieberman and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), another centrist expected to play a pivotal role in passing health reform on the Senate floor, voiced strong doubts Tuesday about an expanded government role in healthcare.

“I just don’t think at this stage in our history, with all of the terrible national debt that we’re facing, that we should be adding another government agency to do this kind of thing,” Lieberman said.

Collins said she was opposed to a “Washington-run public option” because it “would cause many people to lose health insurance that they’re currently happy with now.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) circulated draft legislation over the weekend that does not include the public option, opting instead for the creation of membership-run health insurance cooperatives to compete with private insurance companies.

Baucus roundly rejected the notion that the lack of a public option in his proposal posed any threat to its viability. “I don’t think it endangers it at all, frankly,” he said Tuesday.

The 18-page summary of Baucus's proposal was given to members of the Finance Committee’s bipartisan “Gang of Six” negotiating team Sunday and was widely distributed around Washington by Tuesday.

After meeting with the group, Baucus said his first preference is to be able to announce a bipartisan agreement prior to Obama’s speech. Baucus instructed the Gang of Six members to present their recommendations for changes to the proposal by 10 a.m. Wednesday; the group will meet again that afternoon.

Given the waning support among centrist Democrats for the public option, Baucus’s co-op proposal may find its way into the healthcare package that Reid puts on the floor in the next few weeks.

As doubts about the public option grow, liberals urged Obama not to give up, saying that doing so would be seen as a retreat by the president.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said knowing Obama is in the corner of the public option would give it a boost. He said he is “optimistic” Obama will back it strongly on Wednesday.

At the same time, Grijalva warned that House liberals can kill a health bill without the public option. He noted that 23 centrists members have already said they oppose the bill. If all Republicans vote against the bill, 39 Democratic “no” votes would defeat it.

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who has predicted 100 Democrats would oppose a healthcare bill with no public option, said the speech is likely to decide whether it is included in a bill.

ADVERTISEMENT
“We can cobble the votes together for a public option if the president says that’s what he wants,” Weiner said. “If he gives it up, there’s no other way to interpret that than as a retreat.”

Other liberals publicly pleaded with the president not to give up.

“My hope and expectation is that he’s going to stick to the inclusion of the public option,” said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.). “I think we need to do fundamental reform. I’m not  sure when we’re going to get another bite at the apple.”

The insistence that a healthcare bill cannot pass the House without a public option could bolster Pelosi’s negotiating position with the White House and more skeptical Senate.

But Pelosi may have undercut liberals earlier this summer when she told reporters that there was little chance liberals would vote against a proposal that expanded health insurance to millions of Americans.


J. Taylor Rushing and Jeffrey Young contributed to this article.