WASHINGTON — House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn is pushing a compromise on the most contentious part of President Barack Obama's bid to provide medical benefits to uninsured Americans.
Instead of a nationwide government insurance program, Clyburn is urging other Democrats to accept a scaled-down public option that would be tested as a pilot program in several parts of the country.
"We ought to set up some pilot programs regionally around the country," Clyburn, the No. 3 leader in the House of Representatives, told McClatchy. "What you're trying to do is find out what works and what doesn't work."
The deal offered by Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat with close ties to the White House, was the latest signal that Obama may back off his previous insistence on a full public option when he addresses a joint session of Congress Wednesday.
After a four-year limited trial run, Clyburn said, the federal health-care coverage would be expanded only if it doesn't drive up costs and prompt companies to stop providing private insurance, as Republican opponents have claimed a nationwide public option would do.
"We can evaluate this thing to see whether the (nationwide) public option is needed," Clyburn said.
More than 100 House Democrats — 40 percent of the party's members in the chamber — have demanded that health-care overhauls include a full public option.
Clyburn said he'd spoken with senior White House aides about his plan and would promote it in advance of the president's prime-time speech next week.
Clyburn conceded that Obama's resolve on the public option appears to have weakened, at least judging by some of his aides' recent public comments.
"The president was really strong on that for a long time," Clyburn said. "He didn't seem that strong this week."
It's far from certain that Republicans, who've opposed any federal expansion of government-run health insurance, would accept a modified version along the lines suggested by Clyburn.
Rep. Gresham Barrett, a South Carolina Republican who's running for governor, said people have told him at recent talks that they oppose the Democratic health-care proposals.
"We've been across the state, and I'm hearing loud and clear from South Carolinians that they do not want this Obama health care, they do not want a government-run health-care system, period," Barrett said.
Clyburn, though, said he'd briefed his congressional colleagues on his plan during separate conference calls in recent days with Democratic House leaders and with all lawmakers from the party.
"It's been getting a very good response," Clyburn said.
Rep. John Larson of Connecticut, the No. 4 House leader as head of the Democratic Caucus, and Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, the chairwoman of the House Rules Committee, are strong supporters of using regional pilot programs to test a public option for expanding government health insurance, Clyburn said.
Clyburn said he'd spoken with Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California about his plan, but he acknowledged that she hadn't committed to backing it.
In another sign of possible compromise, Pelosi indicated Thursday that Democrats might be open to a "trigger" mechanism that would delay implementation of the public option pending the outcome of earlier health insurance proposals.
Under Clyburn's plan, pilot programs would be launched in six or seven regions of the country, with 10 to 15 insurance companies vying with the federal government to provide health insurance.
Clyburn cited Congressional Budget Office figures in claiming that fewer than 5 percent of uninsured people might choose federal coverage over the private plans.
Clyburn said Democrats should be satisfied if they can only achieve "half a loaf" of reforms, noting that President Lyndon Johnson didn't get all of his landmark civil rights legislation through Congress on his first try.
"We can pass a health-care bill that will do a lot of good," Clyburn said. "It may not be perfect, but we ought not to sacrifice the good on the altar of the perfect."
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