W.H. didn’t make calls backing public option

The White House did not lobby senators on the Finance Committee before they rejected two amendments that would have added a public option to the panel’s healthcare reform plan.

The lack of political pressure from President Barack Obama and his lieutenants is the latest indication of the White House’s lagging interest in passing healthcare reform that calls for a large government role.

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Despite consistently calling for the idea of a government-run health plan to keep pressure on private companies, Senate leaders say neither the president nor any White House officials lobbied Democrats on the Finance Committee, which voted down two public option amendments offered by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) on Tuesday.

Both Schumer, who is vice chairman of the Democratic Conference, and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) say they are unaware of any phone calls from the administration to Finance Democrats to push for a successful vote on the amendments.

The White House’s silence calls into question the administration’s commitment to a public option plan at a time when the idea is teetering in the upper chamber. Schumer and other Democrats also expressed frustration with the administration’s lack of effort.

Asked if the administration played any role in Tuesday’s committee vote, or called any committee members, Schumer simply said, “No.”

“I would hope the president would weigh in,” Schumer said.

Committee member Tom Carper (D-Del.), who voted yes on the Schumer amendment and no on the Rockefeller measure, said he wasn’t leaned on.

“I expect the administration to play a far more active role in the days ahead as we report a bill out,” Carper said. “The administration has played pretty much the role they need to play, but there will be opportunities for them to play a greater role, to be more vocal.”

Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), a critic of the public option, said he couldn’t answer whether the administration did enough lobbying on amendment voting because “I don’t know how much they did.”

An administration official said White House officials have “provided technical assistance and clarified the president’s views on a few narrow issues where there was a question about the administration’s position” as the amendments process has continued.

“There is no confusion among members of the committee about where the president stands on the issue,” the official said.

Asked if the president is weighing in on different amendments, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday that he doesn’t “believe we’re that involved in the committee process.”

Gibbs added that administration officials are “watching the process.”

White House spokesman Reid Cherlin also said Obama “has repeatedly made his position on the public option clear, including in his address to Congress and the nation in September. That position has not changed.”

Obama did call Rockefeller this week, but only to lobby for the senator’s support for the final bill — not the public option amendment.

Asked if Obama needs to do more, Rockefeller said, “Everybody needs to do more.”

But Durbin and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) both defended Obama’s strategy, saying the former Illinois senator is being careful not to push his ex-colleagues too hard.

“He’s said on a number of occasions that he’s in favor of the public option — he’s made that very clear,” Reid told The Hill.

“It’s too early anyway,” said Durbin. “This is all about the Senate Finance Committee, and I don’t think it’s fair to say the White House is expected to lobby in favor of an amendment.”

White House officials, most notably Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, have delved into committee politics on healthcare reform. When the House Energy and Commerce Committee was struggling to pass a healthcare bill before the August recess, Emanuel was actively involved in the negotiations.

Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have not been shy in calling members to vote for controversial legislation. Both men personally appealed to many members to vote for the economic stimulus package as well as the climate change bill that cleared the House earlier this year.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.) downplayed the administration’s lack of lobbying effort this week, striving to put it in a context of the bill’s overall progress.

“I’m not aware of any efforts they made for or against anything, but generally they haven’t been lobbying this bill,” Menendez said.