WASHINGTON — Concerned that the president might be ready to negotiate away one of their key goals, liberal Democrats pressed President Barack Obama on Monday to resist conservative opposition and maintain support for a government insurance option as part of his health care overhaul.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, called the proposal to make government insurance available to many Americans "the best option to lower costs, improve the quality of health care, ensure choice and expand coverage."
She stressed that the House of Representatives is solidly behind the idea of a government insurance program, strongly suggesting that any new plan without such a program would have a hard time passing. "There is strong support in the House for a public option," she said in a statement. "In the House, all three of our bills contain a public option."
Howard Dean, a physician and the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said flatly: "I don't think it can pass without the public option."
"There are too many people who understand, including the president himself, the public option is absolutely linked to reform," he added during an appearance on CBS. "You can't have reform without a public option."
Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., said it appeared that as Obama moved toward satisfying Senate centrists, he'd lose as many as 100 House members in the process and likely kill any chance of a health care overhaul.
"The president does seem like he's moving away from the public plan," Weiner said Monday on CNBC. "If he does, he's not going to pass a bill. ... There's probably a hundred members of the House who believe for various reasons that you need to have something to bring down prices. ... If the president thinks he's cutting a deal to get Senate votes, he's probably losing House votes."
The liberal concerns came after a weekend in which Obama appeared to open the door to dropping the controversial proposal if necessary to win more votes in Congress from legislators at the political center.
Obama told a town hall meeting that the proposal was "just a sliver" of an overhaul. "Whether we have it or we don't have it," he said, it's "not the entirety of health care reform."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs followed Sunday morning, saying that Obama still thought that the option "is the best way to provide choice and competition." He added, though, that "the president will be satisfied" if the plan includes any other way to deliver choice and competition.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius also said Sunday that government insurance was "not the essential element" of an overhaul, and that one Senate proposal to create nonprofit cooperatives could be an alternative way of competing with insurance companies to drive down costs.
On Monday afternoon, Gibbs said the comments by the president and his staff were misunderstood. Obama, he said, still preferred a public option but has always been open to other alternatives.
Many Democrats want to create a federal government health-insurance program and make it available as an option to small business and to Americans who earn up to $43,000 annually and families of four that make $88,000. Supporters see it as a way of competing with private insurance companies to drive down costs, but critics say that a government program would have an unfair advantage because it wouldn't have to make a profit.
In her statement Monday, Pelosi reminded Obama that he'd long endorsed the so-called public option.
"As the president stated in March, 'The thinking on the public option has been that it gives consumers more choices and it helps keep the private sector honest, because there's some competition out there,' " she said.
"We agree with the president that a public option will keep insurance companies honest and increase competition."
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., another of the Senate's liberals, said: "A strong public option would ensure competition in the industry to provide the best, most affordable insurance for Americans and bring down the skyrocketing health care costs that are the biggest contributor to our long-term budget deficits. ... I am not interested in passing health care reform in name only."
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