- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Advocates of creating government-run insurance plan for the masses have rolled out television campaigns to pressure moderate Democrats to support a so-called public option and mixed a garlic milkshake to convince Republicans they’re serious.

The effort to add a public option to the Senate Finance Committee’s health care reform bill has failed twice, but the fight over whether the government should be competing with the private insurance sector is far from settled.

Amid media reports that the White House is privately lobbying for a public option in the Senate bill, press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday, “the president thinks we can get a strong piece of legislation that ensures choice and competition.”

But President Obama, who is likely to become the chief referee in the battle that has hijacked the reform debate, hasn’t yet publicly indicated how much political capital he will use pushing for a measure cherished by liberal Democrats.

The Finance Committee’s reform plan, expected to be the skeleton of whatever reform plan makes it to the Senate floor, does not have a public option, which prominent Democrats such as Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York says will help curb the ever-escalating cost of health care.

The committee is holding off a vote for final passage until the Congressional Budget Office can provide a preliminary cost estimate. The vote won’t happen until at least Wednesday, but the bill is expected to pass out of committee.

From there, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has the difficult task of merging the Finance bill with a proposal from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which does have a public option. Mr. Reid has said that he prefers the public option, but spokesman Jim Manley said Monday, “Like the president, he’s willing to look at other options that create competition and bring down prices.”

A liberal plan is likely to weaken support from moderate Democrats. A moderate plan without a public option would come at the cost of liberal support.

“The choice confronting the Majority Leader is whether he wants to have any sort of bipartisan appeal,” said Scott Sinder, partner and chairman of the government relations and public policy practice at Steptoe & Johnson LLP. “No one has committed, on the Republican side, to supporting a bill even without the public option.”

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, the only Republican who hasn’t ruled out the idea, is firmly on the fence - at least publicly. Republican lawmakers say a public option is too costly and is the first step toward socialized medicine. They argue it would skew the marketplace and drive private insurers out of business because of the government’s power to negotiate rates.

Lawmakers who support the public option say they are making progress.

The Finance bill does contain a provision that will allow states to choose if they want to pool all federally funded tax credits for the poor and negotiate insurance coverage with a private company.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Washington Democrat who came up with the idea, described it as “a public plan with market forces.”

Advocacy groups have stepped up their presence as well. The NAACP National Voter Fund, the National Council of La Raza, Campaign for Community Change, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Power PAC and the United States Student Association are running television ads calling health care reform, including a public plan, a civil rights issue. The ads are running in states with moderate Democrats, such as Florida, North Carolina, Louisiana and Arkansas.

Hoping to make its case with confections, liberal advocacy groups Progress Ohio and Health Care for America Now delivered a garlic milkshake to House Minority Leader John A. Boehner’s office on Friday. The Ohio Republican declared last week that the public option is just as popular as a garlic milkshake and said he hadn’t met anyone who supports the program.

Mr. Obama has stepped up his public lobbying as well.

In an event with 150 doctors at the White House Rose Garden on Monday, he urged doctors to take the lead in promoting his health care program as the contentious debate enters a critical new phase, with differing versions of industry reform legislation apparently heading to the full House and Senate for lengthy debate and votes.

“When you cut through all the noise and all the distractions that are out there, I think what’s most telling is that some of the people who are most supportive of reform are the very medical professionals who know the health care system best - the doctors and nurses of America,” Mr. Obama said.

• Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.

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