Schumer: Public option close to 60 votes

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A proposal for government-backed health insurance is close to gaining the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate and probably will be in overhaul legislation, a Senate Democratic leader said Sunday.

A proposal for the public option that is gaining wide support would allow states to choose not to participate in a government-run insurance program, said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. The “opt out” proposal is drawing support from many liberal and moderate senators and less opposition from lawmakers wary of government insurance, he said.

Although Democrats control the 60 votes needed to advance legislation under Senate rules, not all Democrats support creating a government-run health insurance program — the biggest point of contention in the debate over President Obama’s top domestic policy priority.

Negotiations in recent days have focused on crafting a public option that would satisfy liberal and moderate Democrats and not drive away others.

Sen. Ben Nelson, a centrist Nebraska Democrat who objects to a national government-run insurance program, said he would be interested in a proposal that allows states to participate only if they ask to join. He called this approach an “opt in” program. Mr. Nelson’s support would be critical in reaching the 60-vote threshold needed to prevent Republicans from using Senate rules to block final passage of legislation.

Mr. Schumer, the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, is leaning strongly toward an opt-out public option. Mr. Reid, who would make the final decision about bringing legislation to the Senate floor for a vote, led a delegation of Democrats to the White House on Thursday to discuss the issue with Mr. Obama.

The president has said he strongly supports a public option as a way of driving down costs by providing competition to private insurers, but he has has said it is not essential to achieving the broad goals of health care legislation.

Another approach to creating an alternative to private insurance is setting up nonprofit cooperatives, an idea pushed by Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

Senate Republicans, who number just 40 in the 100-member chamber, oppose the public option in any form.

“It doesn’t make any sense at all,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “In fact, I think 100 percent of Republicans have indicated they don’t think having the government in the insurance business is a good idea.”

Republicans fear that allowing the government to sell insurance would ultimately lead to a federal takeover of the health care system.

In general, the legislation would remake America’s $2.5 trillion health care system with a new requirement for most Americans to purchase health insurance, and government subsidies to help lower-income people do so. Insurers would face new restrictions against dropping coverage for sick people or denying coverage to people with pre-existing health conditions.

The government provides health care to the elderly and indigent, but the rest of Americans must rely on private insurance, and most receive coverage through their employers. Nearly 50 million don’t have any insurance at all.

Mr. Schumer appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Mr. Nelson was on CNN’s “State of the Union,” and Mr. McConnell spoke on ABC’s “This Week.”

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