Public Option No More? Obama Throws Weight Behind New Health Care Deal

The new plan would expand Medicare and create a national insurance program.

Dec. 9, 2009— -- A Senate deal worked out behind closed doors that would nix the "public option" got the green light from President Obama and could gain broad support in the health care debate, although details remain murky.

Obama today threw his weight behind the Senate health care deal, hailing the "critical progress" lawmakers made on a "creative new framework that I believe will help pave the way for final passage and a historic achievement on behalf of the American people.

"I support this effort," the president said today.

Instead of a new government-run insurance program supported by liberal Democrats, the new Senate proposal would expand Medicare and allow people ages 55 to 64 to buy into the program, starting in 2011.

It would also give people the option to purchase private insurance from a national non-profit insurance program that would be overseen by the Office of Personnel Management, which supervises the health plan that's offered to federal employees and members of Congress.

There were also rumblings that a public option, supported by liberal Democrats, would kick in if the national plan failed.

Democrats will suspend the health care debate on the Senate floor at 5 p.m. today and move to a special, closed-door meeting to discuss their thus-far secret plan.

Many questions remain about what the deal -- crafted by 10 senators -- would entail. But it is already gaining some support among senators who had been skeptical of a public option.

Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who threatened to filibuster with Republicans if the bill contained a public option, said today he is encouraged by the deal but would oppose the trigger provision.

"I am encouraged by the progress toward a consensus on proposals to send to the Congressional Budget Office to review," Lieberman said in a written statement. "My opposition to a government-run insurance option, including any option with a trigger, has been clear for months and remains my position today.

"It is my understanding that at this point there is no legislative language so I look forward to analyzing the details of the plan and reviewing analysis from the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of the Actuary in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid," he added.

Republicans, meanwhile, dismissed Democrats' tentative agreement on a potential way around the public option.

"I don't think it's relevant to the core of the measure," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said. "The core of the measure is a job-killing bill, even if they change something around the edges."

McConnell also pointed to cuts in future Medicare spending on which the bill relies, arguing that because the program is projected to operate at a deficit within seven years, the savings should be used to help Medicare, not extend insurance to more Americans.

"The last thing you want to think about when the Titanic is sinking is to put grandma and more of your family on the boat and that really is what this administration is trying to do," Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said.

Some Democrats have also expressed skepticism about the deal, saying the majority of party members had wanted the public option.

"One of the ideas that's been kicked around is to have some kind of public option as a back up," Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., told reporters today. "I don't know yet. I have some concerns myself -- the public option under the majority leader saves. Are we going to lose those savings?"

Meanwhile, liberal groups expressed frustration with the deal. Liberal advocacy group urged its members to sign a petition calling on members of Congress to include "a real public health insurance option."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who is spearheading health care negotiations, will stay mum on the details until he has a cost assessment from the non-partisan CBO, which is likely to come by the end of this week.

In a hastily arranged news conference Tuesday evening, Reid would only tell reporters that the 10 Democratic negotiators, which include five liberals and five conservatives, "worked through a real problem here" and "have a broad agreement" on "consensus that insures the American people win."

He would not say what's in the agreement, but added that reports that the public option are gone are "not true" and people "will be surprised by what we sent to CBO."

"Not everyone is going to agree on every piece we sent over, but that doesn't mean we don't agree on what we sent over," Reid said.

Even if the secret deal were to get broad support and pass, Democrats will still have to overcome hurdles in ironing out the differences between the Senate and House bills -- the latter includes the option of a government-run insurance program.

Democratic leaders will also have to appease their party members who wanted a strong public option included in the legislation.

Most Republicans oppose the option of a government-sponsored health insurance plan altogether, and have focused their efforts chiefly on targeting Medicare cuts in the Senate bill. The secrecy of the deal and the closed-door negotiations that led to it could also lend weight to transparency concerns that Republicans are making.

Democrats Divided on Health Care Legislation

Republicans have offered numerous amendments to highlight that the health care overhaul effort would be paid for, in large part, by assuming future cost savings in Medicare and Medicaid.

The GOP leadership has also shifted in its arguments against Democrats' bill, with fewer calling it a "government takeover" and more dubbing it a "job killer."

"This bill is a job killer," Grassley told reporters today.

Some Republicans' argument is that the health care overhaul bill raises taxes on companies that offer high-cost insurance plans -- and thus on people who get them, medical device manufacturers, insurers and others, all while assuming Medicare cost savings. More importantly, it would require most businesses to help pay for their employees' health care, impeding their chances for expansion, according to Republicans.

"This bill is a job landslide," said Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., said. "It will take new jobs and bury them under an avalanche of new regulations."

The Senate today continued debate, for the 10th straight day, on the health care legislation. With amendments on abortion and Medicaid cuts already defeated, senators today discussed the drug re-importation amendment that would allow pharmacies and pharmaceutical wholesalers to import drugs from other countries where they are cheaper, such as Canada.

The proposal, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, has broad bipartisan support but is opposed by U.S. pharmaceutical firms, which have come out in support of Democrats' health care overhaul efforts and spent millions on advertising.

Democrats on Tuesday struck down an effort by one of their own to tighten restrictions on abortion coverage.

By a vote of 54-45, senators dismissed the abortion amendment offered by Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Nelson had threatened to vote against final passage if his amendment were not included. But he declined to say after his amendment was defeated if he would abandon the Democrats' razor thin 60-vote majority.

"This makes it very hard for me to support it," Nelson told reporters after the vote.

Nelson told reporters he is not actively involved in negotiations with Reid to find middle ground on the abortion issue.

"I have no plan B and I'm not looking for a plan B," he said. "This was decided. It's there."

Democrats need 60 votes to avoid a Republican filibuster of their bill.

In casting his "No" vote, Reid acknowledged that while he might oppose abortion rights, it "doesn't mean I'm opposed to finding common ground for the greater good."