Snowe says Obama should scrap the public option to pass bill

Key senators said Sunday the "public option" favored by House Democrats for healthcare is all but dead, but a pivotal Republican said it's not dead enough.

President Barack Obama "should take it off the table," said Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) on CBS's "Face the Nation." "It would give real momentum to building consensus."

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Snowe, who has been courted by the White House to be the crucial 60th vote for a possible bipartisan healthcare plan, said Obama's continued support "leaves it open and therefore unpredictable."

But top presidential adviser David Axelrod said on the same program that the White House isn't willing to completely drop the idea.

"I'm not willing to accept that it won't be in the final bill," Axelrod said. "But this is not the whole of health insurance reform."

And Snowe said she could support a so-called "trigger" that would enact the government-run plan to compete with private insurers if the private insurance market fails to become more competitive.

"It is a possibility for bridging the gap at some point in the process," Snowe said.

Snowe's comments and the remarks of other officials Sunday left unclear the direction that the Senate healthcare debate is headed, but put the Senate on a collision course with House Democrats and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Snowe is a crucial vote, but the Senate bill she supports includes "cooperatives," not triggers. Other Republicans show little support for the trigger concept. Other Democrats, such as Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), flatly oppose the public option. And Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said there's no way it can pass the Senate.

"It's not gonna pass ... the only thing that has the prospect of passing is in the Senate," Conrad (D-N.D.) told "Fox News Sunday."

Pelosi has said no health bill can pass the House without a public option. Liberals in the House have threatened to block any House bill without a public option.

In his speech to Congress on Wednesday night, Obama indicated openness to both triggers and nonprofit co-operatives, run by members rather than the government, to compete with the insurance industry. Democratic liberals have been rejecting both concepts as unacceptable sell-outs to the insurance industry, which opposes a public plan.

Snowe and Conrad are members of the so-called "Gang of Six," a bipartisan group of members of the Senate Finance Committee attempting to fashion a bipartisan healthcare bill. Conrad said that committee's bill, which is to be marked up by the full panel the week of Sept. 21, would extend insurance to 94 percent of Americans, cut costs and enact crucial reforms. As it stands now, the bill includes co-operatives, not a trigger.

And Republicans indicated that even the trigger compromise probably won't get much GOP support beyond Snowe. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) called it "phony-baloney." And Snowe's fellow moderate Maine Republican Senator, Susan Collins, rejected a trigger on CNN's "State of the Nation" because "it just delays the public option."

Despite the uncertainty, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate said he believes Congress can finish a bill by Thanksgiving.

"We’re closer to victory now than we have ever been," said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) the Senate majority whip. "Failure to pass healthcare reform this year would make things overwhelmingly worse .... I believe we can [meet that deadline], and I hope we’ll have Republican support to do it."