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Public insurer support fading

Moderates move away from option

By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / September 14, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Leading moderates in both parties retreated further from the government-backed health insurance option yesterday, echoing the argument President Obama made last week that the issue had been overblown and that alternatives, such as private nonprofit cooperatives, might be acceptable.

Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, said the issue had become a “distraction’’ and Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, voiced support for a public option but said Democrats should keep the big picture in mind. Senator Olympia J. Snowe, a Republican from Maine who is one of the most influential voices in the debate, said the public option is politically out of the question.

“I urged the president to take the public option off the table,’’ Snowe said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.’’

Obama said in a separate CBS interview that he is confident Congress will pass “a good health care bill,’’ and he said some Republicans were trying to block a health system overhaul for political gain.

Health care dominated the political talk shows yesterday and, days after Obama urged a joint session of Congress to act quickly, moderates in both parties sounded upbeat about the prospects for a bipartisan deal emerging from the Senate, though some continued to voice concerns about costs.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, which is experiencing grievous budget problems, said the bill must not foist new costs on states, and Senator Susan M. Collins, a Republican from Maine, said cost was “the number one concern, as I talk to my constituents.’’

Feinstein, Snow, and Shaheen were interviewed on CNN’s “State of the Union.’’ McCaskill spoke on “Fox News Sunday.’’

President Obama, meanwhile, devoted a significant part of his weekend to pushing his most important domestic priority. He delivered a campaign-style speech for health care in Minneapolis on Saturday and appeared in a taped interview on “60 Minutes’’ last night, expressing confidence that a bill would pass.

“I believe that we will have enough votes to pass not just any health care bill, but a good health care bill that helps the American people, reduces costs, actually over the long term controls our deficit. I’m confident that we’ve got that,’’ Obama said in the interview. “There are those in the Republican Party who think the best thing to do is just to kill reform.’’

Obama also said he recognized his own political stake in making sure the bill brings down health care costs for everyone.

“You know, I intend to be president for a while, and once this bill passes, I own it,’’ he said. “And if people look and say, ‘You know what? This hasn’t reduced my costs. My premiums are still going up 25 percent, insurance companies are still jerking me around,’ I’m the one who’s going to be held responsible.’’

The president was not asked about the government-sponsored plan during the interview.

With the public deeply uncertain about whether Obama’s plans would help them, steady criticism from Republican leaders, and a strong current of opposition from grass-roots conservatives across the country, the president and his party have a tough road ahead. On Saturday thousands of people from across the country converged on the mall, angrily protesting Obama’s health care plans, deficit spending, and overall agenda.

Some of the protesters held signs praising US Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who said yesterday that he would not apologize from the House floor, as Democrats demanded, for shouting “You lie!’’ at Obama when the president said his health care plan would not benefit illegal immigrants. (Wilson had already apologized to the president.)

Asked about the outburst in the “60 Minutes’’ interview, Obama said he had accepted Wilson’s apology but lamented a “coarsening of our political dialogue.’’

Eric Cantor, House minority whip, praised the protesters for their engagement and passion and told CNN’s King that it was time for Congress to “mimic that type of intention’’ by working across party lines on health care.

But the prospects for a broad bipartisan bill remain remote; only a few moderate Republicans are trying to work out their differences with Democrats. Neither party sees a political advantage in reaching a true bipartisan compromise. Obama also acknowledged he has nearly given up working out a deal on health care with all but a few Republicans, the majority of whom he said were interested only in using the issue to restore their party to power.

And vast ideological differences remain between the Democrats and Republicans.

Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, objected to the proposal from Senator Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat, to penalize families up to $3,800 for not acquiring insurance - “If that isn’t an increase in taxes, I don’t know what is,’’ he said - and said a separate proposal to require employers to reimburse the government for any subsidies used by their low-income employees would hurt the workers concerned.

“And I can tell you right now, people all over the country don’t want this,’’ Hatch said.

One of the senators on the Finance Committee trying to negotiate a bipartisan deal said they were nearing a compromise, but it was unclear how quickly they would get there.

Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Budget Committee chairman and one of the “so-called Gang of Six,’’ said on Fox that the group was “very close to agreement.’’ But Snowe said she is not in a rush and sees “time as our ally, not as our enemy’’ because it gives people more time to build consensus.

Though Baucus, the Finance Committee chairman, has said he will begin drafting a bill in the coming days that will not contain a public option in the hopes of meeting the 60-vote threshold needed to pass legislation under regular Senate rules, some liberals are continuing to press for one. But the momentum for a public option appears to have slackened considerably.

David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the president, insisted yesterday that the issue was not dead. “I am not willing to accept that it will not be part of the final package,’’ he said on CBS.

Senator Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia, said he would continue to fight for one. But he stopped short of saying he would not vote for a bill without one.

And Robert Gibbs, White House spokesman, told CNN “it is not all of health care.’’