- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 13, 2009

The White House and its Democratic allies on Sunday tried to play down the role of a government insurance option in health care legislation as the party in power worked to reclaim momentum on President Obama’s top domestic priority.

His spokesman described the public option as just one way to achieve Mr. Obama’s goal of providing coverage to the estimated 45 uninsured Americans without insurance. Congressional Democrats took care to say the idea, backed by liberals and targeted by conservatives, is not a deal breaker in a debate that has consumed Washington for the summer and shows no sign of abating.

“I think that’s a reasonable way to go, but I think it’s important to stay focused on what we’re trying to accomplish,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, said.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs stressed Mr. Obama’s commitment to choice and competition and declared the public option “a means to an end, but it is not all of health care.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, said the focus on this specific issue has become a distraction in a debate over how most people receive health care coverage.

“That’s a small part of this,” Mrs. McCaskill said.

And Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said there’s “more than one way to skin that cat” when it comes to lowering health care costs, stopping short of insisting that the overhaul include a public option.

Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said his committee was nearing an agreement on legislation that would extend coverage to most uninsured Americans.

Republicans, though, did not seem swayed.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said an alternative to the broad overhaul could be as simple as providing subsidies to the roughly 15 million Americans who he said truly cannot afford coverage.

“C’mon, we’re living in the real world here,” said Mr. Hatch, who serves on the Senate Finance Committee. “People all over the country don’t want this.”

The public plan is envisioned as being offered alongside private coverage through a new kind of purchasing pool called an insurance exchange. At least initially, the exchange would be open to small-business employers and people buying coverage on their own.

While there’s strong support for a public plan among House Democrats, the votes appear to be lacking in the Senate.

Mr. Obama kept up a steady weekend drumbeat of cheerleading for his health care plan in a campaign-style rally, on the radio and Internet, and on network television. He planned to continue the pace with more events designed to seize control of the health care debate following his address to Congress on Wednesday in which he urged Democrats and Republicans to come together.

On the president’s agenda for the coming week is a speech Tuesday to the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh and an a health insurance address Thursday in a Washington suburb.

In public, the president is working to energize his supporters and persuade those who have insurance that a health overhaul is just as vital to them as it is to those who currently aren’t covered. Behind the scenes, the president’s team and Democratic lawmakers are in intense negotiations aimed at cutting a deal that can pass Congress — with or without Republican backing.

Republicans leaders said they agree with Mr. Obama that the health insurance system needs a change, but argue his plans are too costly and won’t work.

Mrs. Shaheen, Mr. Gibbs and Mrs. Feinstein appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Mrs. McCaskill, Mr. Conrad and Mr. Hatch spoke with “Fox News Sunday.”

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