Liberals press hard for public option as Congress awaits Obama address

House liberals pushed hard for including a public insurance option in the healthcare bill Wednesday at the first Democratic caucus since lawmakers returned to Capitol Hill.

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The push comes hours before President Barack Obama takes on the boiling controversy by way of a joint address to Congress he hopes will salvage his hopes for healthcare reform.

In their first get-together since returning from a brutal August recess, Democrat after Democrat stood to demand the inclusion of a public option, a government-run insurance plan that would compete with private insurers.

“I was surprised by the intensity of support,” said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), who supports the public option. “There was more support than I expected, and from people I didn't expect it from.”

Lawmakers in attendance said few of the centrists who oppose the public option spoke at the closed-door meeting of the Democratic Caucus.

But Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.), a leader of the centrist Blue Dog Democrats, made a call for unity, urging more liberal members to stop publicly insulting Blue Dogs.

“She said we shouldn't be questioning each other's motives,” said one lawmaker.

Rep. Pete Stark (Calif.), a liberal and senior Democrat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, recently criticized Blue Dogs in a conference call as “brain dead,” and said: “They're just looking to raise money from insurance companies.”

But another Blue Dog critic, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), said she had no plans to mute her criticism.

“Hell, no,” Waters said. “Progressives have a voice in this caucus and we're not going to back down.”

Momentum appears to be turning against the public option, and Obama is not expected during his primetime address to insist on its inclusion in a healthcare bill, though he is likely to offer it another endorsement as a way to lower prices.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), often a voice for conservative Democrats, reiterated Tuesday that he’d rather see a healthcare bill become law than insist on a public option.

But liberal Democrats in the House have threatened to oppose a healthcare bill that has no public option. They’ve also expressed frustration that Obama has not more forcefully advocated for it.

Many public plan supporters on Wednesday also complained that the public option hasn't been explained well to the public.

“It is colossally misunderstood,” said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.).

For his part, Obama on Wednesday told “Good Morning America” that he had left “too much ambiguity” in setting out his demands on healthcare reform. Obama said that had allowed opponents to control the message.

August has not been a kind month to Obama and Democrats. The president’s poll numbers have sunk as the healthcare debate dominated the news cycle, and many Democratic lawmakers, including Hoyer, found themselves on the defensive during noisy town hall debates in their districts.

House Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), whose panel prepares bills for the floor, said she expects the House to vote on a bill before the Senate, where negotiations in the Finance Committee have missed numerous deadlines.

“It's like Waiting for Godot, and I don't want to spend my life doing that,” Slaughter said.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the Finance panel chairman, on Wednesday said his committee would mark up legislation later this month. He also said he would put forward a formal legislative proposal next week.

House leaders have said there is no timeline for voting on a bill in the House, but they want to pass a final bill this year.