- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 17, 2009

House Democrats said a preliminary estimate proves a government-run insurance plan isn’t too costly to be part of health care reform, while a top Senate backer of the public option called on moderate Democrats to drop their opposition to it.

The fate of the public option has been up in the air as Democratic leaders work to merge three separate bills in the House and two different versions in the Senate - the most recent of which, from the Senate Finance Committee, does not include the provision.

In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been adamant that a public option be part of the final bill, and her office seized on rough estimates from the Congressional Budget Office as evidence it could be done without exceeding President Obama’s $900 billion cost ceiling.

Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said the early CBO scores - one at $859 billion over a decade and the other at $905 billion - are out of date and would be updated after House Democrats submit final policy specifications.

“But they do confirm, as the speaker has said, that the coverage provisions of the House bill will be under $900 billion and we will have a public option,” Mr. Daly said.

He added that no final decisions have been made with respect to which House version Democratic leaders will go with. Only one bill has what Mrs. Pelosi describes as a “robust public option.”

Meanwhile, one of the Senate’s top proponents of a public option said Friday that the handful of Democrats opposed to the measure should “come on board.”

Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, who was recently appointed chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said there are more than 50 Democrats who favor the public option as it is described in the health committee’s bill. It would establish a government-run health insurance program designed to compete with private insurers.

“Only five Democrats are really opposed to it,” he said in a conference call with reporters and Families USA, a liberal health care advocacy group. “Should the 52 or 55 give into the five or should the five come on board with the vast majority? I think the answer is clear.”

Sixty votes are required to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. While Democrats have 60 seats, there are a handful of moderate Democrats who are leery of the public insurance plan.

But Mr. Harkin expressed confidence that the Senate bill will have it and that Mr. Obama will sign an overhaul bill by Christmas.

He said the combined Senate bill is expected late next week. From there, the CBO could take up to two weeks to analyze the bill. Then, Senate debate can begin.

Neither the preliminary cost estimates for the House bills nor the Senate Finance Committee bill include the cost of about $250 billion to pay for increased Medicare payments to doctors, which Democrats are proposing. Republicans have accused Democrats of keeping the issue separate from the overall health legislation so they can argue that it does not add to the federal deficit.

Also Friday, Republicans said the Obama administration rescinded its gag order that prevented some health plans from telling their customers that Democrats’ health care plans would cut the Medicare Advantage program. The administration in September had ordered the companies to stop, saying they might be violating federal law.

Republicans are still calling for an investigation into the initial order, arguing that it amounted to political pressure to try to force the companies to back Mr. Obama’s health care plans.

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