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Centrist Dems wary of public option push

Centrist Dems wary of public option push
© Greg Nash

Centrist Democrats appear reluctant to join their party’s embrace of a public option for ObamaCare.  

The idea of adding a government-run insurance option to compete with private insurers is making a comeback in the Democratic Party, with President Obama endorsing the idea Monday, two days after presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillicon Valley: China implicated in Microsoft breach | White House adds Big Tech critic | QAnon unfazed after false prediction Jill Biden redefines role of first lady QAnon supporters unfazed after another false prediction MORE emphasized a public option as part of an effort to win over Bernie SandersBernie SandersSinema pushes back on criticism of her vote against minimum wage, implying that it's sexist Biden takes victory lap after Senate passes coronavirus relief package Schumer insists Democrats unified after chaotic coronavirus debate MORE and his supporters after a contentious primary.

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But among more centrist members of the Senate, where the “public option” was stopped in 2009, there is little enthusiasm for the idea. 

Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampCentrist Democrats pose major problem for progressives Harrison seen as front-runner to take over DNC at crucial moment Biden to tap Vilsack for Agriculture secretary: reports MORE (D), who represents conservative-leaning North Dakota, pushed back the hardest.

“I think it's critically important that we stop trying to complicate healthcare and we start taking a look at what needs to be fixed in ObamaCare,” Heitkamp said. “Until we actually have those conversations and we have bipartisan support, I think it's unrealistic to assume that we're going to see any kind of expansion of care.”

Heitkamp proposed tweaks to the health law, along with other centrist Democrats, in 2014, such as streamlining reporting requirements to lighten the load on businesses.  

While a public option has no chance of passing so long as Republicans control the House and Senate, it’s far from certain that the idea could pass a Democratic Congress, given the skepticism or outright opposition among centrists like Heitkamp. 

Sen. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyEverybody wants Joe Manchin Centrist Democrats pose major problem for progressives Biden and Schumer face battles with left if Democrats win big MORE (D-Ind.), another Democrat from a red-leaning state, referred questions to his press office when asked if he supported a public option. His press office did not respond to inquiries.  

Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerGOP votes in unison against COVID-19 relief bill Senate inches toward COVID-19 vote after marathon session Hillicon Valley: YouTube to restore Trump's account | House-passed election bill takes aim at foreign interference | Senators introduce legislation to create international tech partnerships MORE (D-Va.), who survived a reelection scare in 2014, was noncommittal on the question of a public option, pivoting to a different change he’d like to see in ObamaCare.

He called for addressing the requirement in ObamaCare for providing coverage to people who work more than 30 hours per week. Critics of the law say that requirement has created an incentive for employers be push people into part-time positions.

“As we talk about other options, we also have to address things like [the] 29 to 30 hour cliff,” Warner said. 

That “cliff” is an issue usually raised by Republicans. 

While the public option has been embraced in the liberal-leaning quarters of the party, more centrist Democrats simply said they were unsure and had to study the details. 

“I'd have to see it first to see; it's a big term,” Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Divided House on full display Florida Democrats mired in division, debt ahead of 2022 Centrist Democrats pose major problem for progressives MORE (D-Fla.) said when asked about Obama’s public option proposal.  

When asked if he supports a public option in general terms, Nelson said, “I'm not going to answer that, because I don't want to answer generally. I want to answer specifically.” 

Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperSenate approves sweeping coronavirus measure in partisan vote Senate holds longest vote in history as Democrats scramble to save relief bill Biden gets involved to help break Senate logjam MORE (D-Del.) offered a similar response. 

“I had not heard that, so let me just take a look at it,” Carper said. “When we passed the Affordable Care Act, unfortunately we had to do it very much on a party line vote, and it's unfortunate, because if it had been a bipartisan bill, it would have been better, I think.” 

“I'm proud of what we did nonetheless,” he added. “Can that early work be improved upon? Sure it can.” 

Asked if he is open to the idea of a public option in general terms, Carper did not answer directly, instead joking, “I'm happy to hear all kinds of good ideas, even the president’s.”

Both Nelson and Carper voted against a more liberal version of the public option in the Senate Finance Committee in 2009 while voting in favor of a version seen as more moderate, put forward by Sen. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden takes victory lap after Senate passes coronavirus relief package Lawmakers demand changes after National Guard troops at Capitol sickened from tainted food Ron Johnson forces reading of 628-page Senate coronavirus relief bill on floor MORE (D-N.Y.).

Obama, who supported a public option in 2009 before dropping it to win passage of the law, renewed his call in an article published on Monday. He said that while there is strong competition on the ObamaCare marketplaces for most people, in some states there are only one or two insurers. He said a public option could add competition in those areas. 

Clinton has gone farther, in that she does not geographically limit where the public option would be. She has also called for allowing people to buy into Medicare at age 55. 

Clinton’s proposals drew praise from Sanders, the champion of the surging left wing of the party, on Saturday. 

“The goal of health care reform in America is to guarantee health care for all as a right, what every other major country on earth does,” Sanders wrote on Twitter.

“Today's proposal by [Clinton] is an important step toward expanding health insurance and health care access to millions of Americans.”