Liberal Democrats back dropping ‘public option’ for healthcare

The path to enacting the first major healthcare overhaul in decades opened wider today, as liberal Democrats and President Obama rallied behind a decision to put aside an idea they had long held as an article of faith -- creating a government-run alternative to private medical insurance.

Obama summoned Senate Democrats to the White House today to urge them not to let disagreements over details of the legislation derail or delay the landmark effort. Reflecting that push for unity in the face of divisions, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democrat-turned-independent who only days before had thwarted Senate leaders in a last-ditch effort to include a modified form of the public option, was among those attending the meeting.

“This reform has to pass on our watch,” Obama told the group. “We are on the precipice of an achievement that has eluded Congresses and presidents for decades.”

And, while some liberals denounced the decision, leaders of several progressive groups signaled that they would support dropping proposals to create a new government alternative to private insurance rather than risk stalling their drive.

“The final bill won’t include everything that everybody wants,” Obama said.

The president weighed in at a critical moment, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was working to unite their party in advance of key votes on a compromise that did not include the so-called “public option” -- a new government-run health insurance plan -- or an alternative popular with liberals to expand Medicare.

A vast array of details have yet to be pinned down in the compromise, but the framework of the Senate bill came into view as Reid tried to clear the way for a final vote before Christmas. The sense of momentum was fueled as disputes on other issues -- such as prescription drug costs -- were resolved and potential critics seemed to lose their fight.

Without any GOP support, all 60 lawmakers in the Democratic caucus, including Lieberman and another independent, will have to vote for the procedural motion in order for the bill to advance. It will then have to be reconciled with a version passed last month by the House, a stronger bulwark of liberalism than the Senate.

The co-chairman of the House Progressive Caucus immediately decried the Senate compromise, saying he would oppose the bill if it is not moved significantly to the left.

“The Senate has somehow managed to turn the House’s silk purse into a sow’s ear,” Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Texas) said in a statement.

But other Democratic leaders stayed away from such ultimatums. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters that the House could pass the health bill without a public option, contrary to earlier warnings.

But others said it would be hard for Congress to stray far from the path being blazed by the Senate, especially as Obama lieutenants like Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel have been steadily warning that any healthcare bill would be preferable to failure to act.

“We are not going to vote against healthcare in the final analysis, because what we’ll get from the Senate will be better than what we have now,” said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.). “Rahm told us months ago: Everything can be compromised except our ultimate goal of getting something done. Everything else is negotiable.”

And liberals acknowledged they were in a weak bargaining position because conservatives were willing to kill the bill over their disagreements -- and Democrats were not.

“We progressives are negotiating with a gun to our heads,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.). “Our opponents are saying, ‘Go ahead and shoot.’ If you’re a public option fan, you haven’t had a good week.”

Reid’s push to advance legislation picked up important support today from several leading consumer groups, including the AARP, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, Consumers Union and Families USA. The groups plan to join the Service Employees International Union, which has been a leading advocate for a new government insurance plan, at the Capitol Wednesday to urge senators to quash a Republican-led filibuster next week.

And in a blunt hat-tip to political reality, Health Care for America Now, the influential coalition of liberal activist groups, decided today to send a letter to Reid calling for passage of the legislation, said Richard Kirsch, the group’s campaign manager.

“There are major problems with the Senate bill,” Kirsch said in an interview today. “But if the Senate doesn’t act, there will be no healthcare reform. . . . The place to fix [the Senate bill] is in a conference committee” with House and Senate leaders at the table.