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Public Health-Care Option Is Sinking Fast in Congress

Prospects for a government insurance plan appeared to be sinking fast Tuesday as lawmakers returned to Capitol Hill a day ahead of a major health care speech by President Barack Obama.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters a Medicare-like plan for middle-class Americans and their families isn't essential for him to back legislation.

Stethescope and money
Stethescope and money

These comments came shortly after a key Democratic moderate said he could no longer back a bill that includes a new government plan.

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The fast-moving developments left liberals in a quandary.

Progressives have drawn a line, saying they won't vote for legislation if it doesn't include a public plan to compete with private insurance companies and force them to lower costs.

In the Senate, where there's even less support for the idea, hopes for bipartisan agreement hung in the balance. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he wants to pass a bipartisan bill by the end of the year, and that Democrats will seek to pass a plan without Republicans only if there is no alternative.

Reid said the legislation should help stabilize health insurance for those who have it and help secure it for those who don't. It should "keep the insurance industry honest, and lower costs," he added.

A small group of negotiators on the pivotal Finance Committee prepared to meet in a last-ditch effort to reach consensus on a compromise bill.

A draft of the latest proposal calls for nonprofit co-ops as an alternative to private insurance, but not a government plan.

Hoyer prefaced his comments by saying he supports a public option and considers it "of vital importance." But is it a must-have?

"I think there is a lot in the bill that is very good in addition to the public option," Hoyer responded. "If the public option were not in there I could still support a bill, because I think there is a lot in there that is good."

He added: "In the final analysis, we'll have to come down to see what we can pass."

Hoyer's comments followed a 180-degree turn by Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., who took the lead in July in negotiating changes to House Democrats' health overhaul bill to make it more palatable to moderates. He voted for the legislation in committee with a public plan.

But Ross said Tuesday that after hearing from constituents during the August recess he could not support a bill with a public plan.

"If House leadership presents a final bill that contains a government-run public option, I will oppose it," Ross said.

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said there is "plenty to work with" to achieve an overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system and called the public option essential.

She said healthcare reform "will be done in a fiscally sound way" after meeting with President Barack Obama.

Obama, who will address Congress and the nation on health care Wednesday night, told a Labor Day audience of union members that it's time for insurance companies to share accountability for problems in the system.

The president said a public plan would be an important tool to help check the excesses of private industry.

But over the weekend, key White House aides signaled that Obama could sign legislation even if it does not include a public option.

Reuters contributed to this report

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