Racing to regain control of the health-care debate, two top administration officials signaled Sunday that the White House may be willing to jettison a controversial government-run insurance plan favored by liberals.
As President Obama finishes a western swing intended to bolster support for his signature policy initiative, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius opened the door to a compromise on a public option, saying it is “not the essential element” of comprehensive reform. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Obama “will be satisfied” if the private insurance market has “choice and competition.”
Yet even as the Obama team hinted it could accept concessions that moderate Democrats are seeking, one of the leaders of that faction raised another hurdle for the administration. He warned that Senate Finance Committee negotiators may not meet the president’s Sept. 15 deadline for producing a bill.
“We will be ready when we are ready,” Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.) said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We will not be bound by any deadline.”
The on-air deliberations played out against the backdrop of an intense and expensive battle on the ground, with an array of activists using this month to lobby lawmakers in their home states and districts.
“Everybody on the left and the right is very frustrated with the health debate,” said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.). He said he has heard anxious stories from constituents who have lost jobs, seen a relative receive poor treatment in a hospital, watched retirement accounts evaporate and fretted about gun rights.
“I have heard every possible reason for anger,” he said in an interview. “The common target is Congress.”
Declining poll numbers, testy town hall meetings and mounting frustration among his allies sent Obama into campaign mode over the weekend. He staged his own forums and wrote an opinion piece published Sunday in the New York Times.
“In the coming weeks, the cynics and the naysayers will continue to exploit fear and concerns for political gain,” he wrote. “But for all the scare tactics out there, what’s truly scary — truly risky — is the prospect of doing nothing.”
Andrew Stern, head of the Service Employees International Union, said that “Obama’s gaining ground” after several sluggish weeks. But he disputed Conrad’s contention that Senate negotiators need additional time to draft a bill.
“Deliberation is fine, but at some point it’s just delaying,” he said in an interview. “A longer wait to make the hard choices on health care is not increasing the odds of success.”
Obama has staked much of his first year in office on a health-care initiative aimed at extending coverage to millions of uninsured Americans and at controlling medical costs.
The president has said that creating a nonprofit, government-sponsored insurance plan — competing alongside private insurers — would provide a lower-cost alternative for consumers and keep the industry “honest.” In Colorado on Saturday, the tone was more conciliatory.
“The public option, whether we have it or we don’t have it, is not the entirety of health-care reform,” Obama said. “This is just one sliver of it.”
The proposal has become a lightning rod, particularly in the Senate, where Finance Committee members are seeking bipartisan consensus.
“The fact of the matter is there are not the votes in the United States Senate for the public option,” said Conrad, one of six panel members involved in the talks. “There never have been. So to continue to chase that rabbit, I think, is just a wasted effort.”
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said Democrats are moving toward a European-style, single-payer system. “And this public plan, this public government plan, don’t think for a minute that that will not destroy the current insurance system,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Sebelius and other administration aides have said Obama is open to a nonprofit cooperative model as an alternative to the public option and the existing private plans. Finance Committee members have been studying utility co-ops as a possible model.
Liberal leaders reacted strongly to the idea that Obama would walk away from what they consider a central element of reform.
“I don’t think this bill is worth passing without a public option,” said Howard Dean, head of the grass-roots group Democracy for America.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) said it would be difficult to pass a bill in the House without a robust government alternative.
“The private insurance companies have been in charge for so long that I think they feel that nobody else ought to be able to do it,” she said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Said Sebelius earlier on the same program: “What’s important is choice and competition. And I’m convinced at the end of the day, the plan will have both of those.”