Hoyer opens door to dropping public option

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer on Friday left the door open to moving a health reform package without a public insurance option prized by liberals.

Hoyer’s remarks were in contrast to statements Thursday by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who told a San Francisco audience that a public option must be included to win the votes necessary to pass healthcare reform in the House.

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Hoyer (D-Md.) emphasized his support for a public option in a teleconference call with reporters, but also said he wants to ensure Congress sends a bill to the president.

“I’m for a public option, but I’m also for passing a bill,” he said. Democrats believe the public option is necessary, useful and important, he added, “be we’ll have to see.”

He then said there are many other important parts of healthcare legislation that have been approved by three committees in the House.

President Barack Obama already has signaled he won’t insist that a public option be included in final healthcare legislation, and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Sunday opened a firestorm with the political left by saying that a public option was “not essential” to a healthcare bill.

Hoyer has long been seen as a voice for centrist Blue Dog Democrats, who have reservations about the public option.

In the Senate, it appears unlikely that a bill with a public option could win the 60 votes necessary to win procedural votes. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) has said the votes in the Senate aren’t there and that pursuing a public option is a “wasted effort.”

But not including the option could provide problems for Democratic leaders in the House. Sixty members of the party’s liberal wing have signed a letter stating that they won’t support a bill that does not include a public option, and some Democrats have said that underestimates opposition from the left.

“There’s no way I can pass a bill in the House of Representatives without a public option,” Pelosi said during a press conference Thursday in San Francisco, according to Bloomberg News.

Liberals say including a public option is the best way to increase competition in the insurance sector and force private companies to lower their costs. Opponents argue a public option could drive private insurance companies out of business and lead to runaway costs.

Hoyer was cool to suggestions that a healthcare bill be scaled down to improve its chances of passage, a suggested floated by Republicans and a third member of the Democratic House leadership, Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.).

He acknowledged that some parts of the bills moving through the House and Senate, such as a provision that would prevent insurance companies from declining to cover people with pre-existing health conditions, are popular.

But he said if a bill is broke into segments, there’s a risk that key ingredients to drive down costs would be left aside. “If you leave behind reforms that are going to bring down costs, you haven’t dealt with the problem,” he said.

Clyburn earlier this week noted that Congress passed civil rights legislation in multiple parts, with each bill serving as a stepping stone to broader reforms down the road. He said Congress should do what it can immediately on healthcare reform, “and use the time between now and 2012 to figure out how to do the rest.”

Hoyer said the sometimes rowdy town hall meetings that have dominated the August recess have had a positive effect on the healthcare debate by allowing people to come out and express their views on an important issue.

The majority leader had come under some criticism last week for an op-ed in USA Today co-written with Pelosi. That column said those who have disrupted town halls were acting in an “un-American” like fashion.

The focus of Hoyer’s conference call with Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) was that healthcare reform will help small businesses by expanding coverage and lowering costs.

Hoyer said small businesses face significant discrimination in gaining health insurance because of their size, and promised the Democratic healthcare effort would expand coverage to most of the 28 million small business owners, employees and their families who are now uninsured.