Dems Seek to Play Down Role of Public Option Idea

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The White House and its Democratic allies on Sunday tried to play down the role of a government insurance option in health care legislation as the party in power worked to reclaim momentum on President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority.

His spokesman described the public option as just one way to achieve Obama’s goal of providing coverage to the estimated 45 uninsured Americans without insurance. His senior adviser contended the White House was ready to accept that Congress would reject the idea, though he, too, said it was an option, not a make-or-break choice.

Congressional Democrats took care to say the idea, backed by liberals and targeted by conservatives, is not a deal breaker in a debate that has consumed Washington for the summer and shows no sign of abating.

“I think that’s a reasonable way to go. But I think it’s important to stay focused on what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.

Presidential press secretary Robert Gibbs stressed Obama’s commitment to choice and competition and declared the public option “a means to an end, but it is not all of health care.”

Echoing that sentiment, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said the focus on this specific issue has become a distraction in a debate over how most people receive health care coverage.
And Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said there’s “more than one way to skin that cat” when it comes to lowering health care costs, stopping short of insisting that the overhaul include a public option.

The chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, said his committee was nearing an agreement on legislation that would extend coverage to most uninsured Americans.

The public plan is envisioned as being offered alongside private coverage through a new kind of purchasing pool called an insurance exchange. At least initially, the exchange would be open to small employers and people buying coverage on their own.

While there’s strong support for a public plan among House Democrats, the votes appear to be lacking in the Senate.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, the Maine Republican who has proved a reliable collaborator with the White House, said Obama should just give up on the public option in favor of building consensus and that he should have done so during his Wednesday speech to Congress to bring Republicans on board.

GOP leaders said they agree with Obama that the current health insurance system needs a change, but argue his plans are too costly and won’t work.

Editor’s note: Shaheen, Gibbs and Feinstein appeared on the CNN’show State of the Union. McCaskill, Conrad and Hatch spoke with Fox’s weekend show Fox News Sunday. Snowe and Axelrod appeared on CBS’ Face the Nation.