Fight over public plan intensifies

A debate over creating a government-run insurance plan as part of sweeping healthcare reform intensified Monday, putting President Obama’s prospects for signing legislation with strong bipartisan support in jeopardy.

All but one of the 10 Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee on Monday signed a letter to Obama expressing their opposition to the public option, which Obama has demanded in his own letter to leading Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has also made his opposition clear in an interview with reporters.

At the same time, Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa), the third-ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, which shares jurisdiction over the healthcare overhaul, said Monday that Democrats reserved the right to use special budget rules to push through the legislation without GOP senators, and that the proposal only needs a handful of Republicans to be considered “bipartisan.”

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Senators are raising their rhetoric on an issue that is expected to be the fault-line in the debate one week before the HELP Committee begins marking up the healthcare overhaul, which Harkin said will cost $1 trillion.

“The key to a bipartisan bill is to not have a government plan in the bill — no matter what it’s called,” McConnell told reporters this month. “When I say no government plan I mean no government plan. Not something described some other way, not something that gets us to the same place by indirection — no government plan.”

In their letter to Obama, the Finance Committee Republicans said a public option would result in “a federal government takeover of our healthcare system, taking decisions out of the hands of doctors and patients and placing them in the hands of a Washington bureaucracy.” The only Republican senator on the committee not to sign the letter was Olympia Snowe (Maine).

Harkin, who has assumed a leading role in the absence of ailing HELP Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), made clear that Democrats really don’t need McConnell or the bulk of Republicans to pass the legislation.

Using reconciliation rules remains an option for Democrats, Harkin said, and that would allow leaders to pass a bill with a simple majority instead of the much more difficult threshold of 60 votes.

Democrats currently control 59 seats in the chamber, with Al Franken representing the 60th vote, should he prevail in his court challenge in Minnesota.

Harkin met with Obama last week and said the president asked for a bill to be ready for his signature by mid-October.

“If we have a few people who just want to block it, but we have a majority of the Senate that wants this bill, we can do it,” Harkin said. “We just can’t have a majority of the Senate, and a substantial number of Republicans, support something that one or two people want to stop.”

Harkin said Republicans are simply pushing the “government-run” phrase on the advice of pollsters, suggesting that the party cares more about politics than policy.

“But the polls really show the American people want a public plan, overwhelmingly,” Harkin said Monday while promoting draft legislation that the committee began circulating earlier this month that includes the public option.

Not everyone in the party agrees with that approach. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), whose committee also has jurisdiction over the bill, and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who is sponsoring legislation that has attracted Republican support and has a limited public option, both have said that getting lasting reform signed into law will require broad bipartisan support.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the ranking member of the Finance Committee and among the Republicans who signed the letter to Obama, used the micro-blogging site Twitter over the past week to express his frustration with Obama’s forcing the issue and cutting Republicans out of closed-door meetings with lawmakers.

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“Pres Obama you got nerve while u sightseeing in Paris to tell us ‘time to deliver’ on healthcare,” Grassley Tweeted on Sunday.

Elsewhere behind the scenes, GOP aides laid the groundwork for a message war and agreed that bipartisanship was fraying. One senior aide cited last week’s White House meeting on healthcare — to which no Republicans were invited — as well as President Obama‘s letter last week, which was sent only to Democrats.

“Republicans want to make sure that the terminology that’s being used is not just what the White House wants to have used,” said the aide. “There’s a lot of skepticism on our side about how genuine our Democratic colleagues are.”

Michael O’Brien contributed to this article.