- The Washington Times - Monday, December 28, 2009

Two leading House Democrats indicated Sunday that a “public option” insurance plan could be dropped from the final health care bill and still retain support from them and others in their caucus.

Democratic leaders, including President Obama, hailed Senate passage of a health care bill last week, but much has yet to be worked out with House Democrats before a final bill can be signed into law.

The House’s third- and fourth-ranking Democrats said Congress can dispense with the public option, a government-run insurance plan that would compete with private companies. Liberal lawmakers and activists favor the provision.

“We want a public option to do basically three things: create more choice for insurers, create more competition for insurance companies and to contain costs. So if we can come up with a process by which these three things can be done, then I’m all for it. Whether or not we label it a public option or not is of no consequence,” House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat, said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

When asked by CBS host John Dickerson whether he could give his support to a bill that has no public option, Mr. Clyburn said “Yes, sir, I can.”

Senate Democrats passed their version of the measure on a party-line vote of 60-39 on Christmas Eve, but many differences must be resolved with the House if a final bill is to make its way to Mr. Obama’s desk.

The Senate plan does not bar federal funding for insurance plans that cover abortions and does not include language for a public option. The House-passed measure does both.

Negotiations for final Senate passage continued during the final days before Christmas and led to the inclusion of hundreds of millions of dollars in “sweeteners” to gain the support of key Democrats, such as Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

Senate Democrats have cautioned their House counterparts that any substantial changes to their bill could break the fragile coalition in their chamber.

“If we are going to have a final law, it will look a lot more like the Senate version than the House version,” Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

On the same show, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, acknowledged the political equation.

“We’re not going to rubber-stamp the Senate bill. On the other hand, we recognize the realities in the Senate,” Mr. Van Hollen said.

The public option has become one of the sharpest dividing points for House and Senate Democrats. Liberal activist groups, including MoveOn.org, have urged Democrats to oppose any health care reform measure without a public option.

Conservative opinion leaders, meanwhile, including talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, have chastised Senate Republicans for not stopping the bill’s approval last week. The Senate minority leader rebutted that criticism Sunday.

“Every single Republican opposed the measure. All of the procedural devices that are available to slow down a measure were employed. It didn’t pass until Christmas Eve at 7 a.m. … I’m not sure what’s to criticize about that from a conservative point of view,” Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said on ABC’s “This Week.”

White House aides on Sunday were largely evasive about the president’s stance on the public option, abortion funding and other sticking points between the House and Senate bills.

“I think the president would tell you that what he sees in each of these bills is, in many cases, virtually identical,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“The major parts of health care reform that the president sought to have enacted as a candidate are now very close to happening, and he thinks the commonality between the two proposals overlaps quite a bit,” he said.

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