A top Democrat said Sunday he would be willing to support health care legislation without a government-run "public option" insurance plan - a provision being pushed by the administration and many Capitol Hill supporters.
"I support a public option, but, yes, I am open" to a bill without it, said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois on CNN's "State of the Union."
"We'll see how this ends, but I don't want the process to be filibustered to failure which, unfortunately, many [Republican] senators are trying to do," he said. "I want to make sure that we do something positive for the American people."
President Obama and most congressional Democrats say a public option would provide needed competition for the private insurance market, resulting in lower costs for consumers.
Republicans counter that a government-run plan would have an unfair advantage and drive private insurers out of business, resulting in millions of Americans losing their private care. This scenario, they add, would lead to an eventual government takeover of the nation's health insurance system.
But Mr. Durbin acknowledged that even if the Senate passes a health care reform package without the controversial public-option provision, Democrats, who control both chambers of the Congress, still could insert the provision in a final compromise during negotiations between House and Senate versions of the bill.
"Just understand that, after we pass this bill - and I hope we do - in the Senate, it will go to conference committee," he said. "We'll have a chance to work out all of our differences."
Mr. Durbin said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat leading the health care push in his chamber, has been negotiating for months with three Republican senators to win their support for a public option.
But if Democrats can't get enough Republicans to support a public option, then Mr. Durbin said his party will do what is necessary to push the proposal through Congress.
"If it reaches the point where we cannot reach a bipartisan agreement, I don't want to see health care reform fail," he said. "We only get a chance once in a political lifetime to do something" as major as health care reform.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said there still is considerable "middle ground" in the health care debate between the two parties and said Republicans are willing to work with Democrats on a compromise deal. But he warned that unless the majority party promises not to slip a public option provision into a final compromise bill, Republicans will be hard-pressed to support any Democratic proposal.
"Democrats have a super-majority in both the House and the Senate - without some assurance that the public option, or government option, is off the table, I don't see how we make much headway," Mr. Cornyn said on "State of the Union."
The Senate's top Republican, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, said Democrats' health care reform push is in "serious trouble" and facing a "very skeptical" public.
The Kentucky senator added that the administration's plan, if implemented, would push the federal government into further serious debt.
"About half of the estimated cost of this is being underwritten by cuts in Medicare, which may explain why you have an awful lot of angry people showing up at these town meetings already, and my suspicion is that will probably happen throughout August," Mr. McConnell said on "Fox News Sunday."
Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said an overhaul of the nation's health care system is not worth having without a public option.
"If you're not going to have a public option, don't pretend you're doing health care reform," said Mr. Dean on ABC's "This Week" program on Sunday.
Mr. Dean, former governor of Vermont and a physician, said that even though most Americans with private health insurance would choose to stay with their plans if the administration's reform proposal was adopted, he said it's wrong to give private insurers an unchecked monopoly.
"Why shouldn't [Americans] have the choice? Why should the health insurance companies have that choice?" he said.
But former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says the federal government has no business running health care and that current government health programs like Medicaid and the Indian Health Service are a "disaster" and "corrupt."
"Veterans care is the one system that actually works reasonably well, but the others do not," Mr. Gingrich said on "This Week."
Mr. Gingrich added that it is wrong for Democrats to portray the public option as a true "option," saying that it would be cheaper for most companies to drop their employee health insurance plan in favor of the proposed government-run plan.