WASHINGTON - 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 Barack Obama's top domestic priority.
His spokesman described the public option as just one way to achieve Obama's goal of providing coverage to the estimated 45 uninsured Americans without insurance. His senior adviser contended the White House was ready to accept that Congress would reject the idea, though he, too, said it was an option, not a make-or-break choice.
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 now 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," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.
Presidential press secretary Robert Gibbs stressed 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."
Echoing that sentiment, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., 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," McCaskill said.
And Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., 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.
The chairman of the Senate Budget Committee said his committee was nearing an agreement on legislation that would extend coverage to most uninsured Americans. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.
Republicans, though, did not seem swayed.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, 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 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 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.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, the Maine Republican who has proved a reliable collaborator with the White House, said Obama should just give up on the public option in favor of building consensus and that he should have done so during his Wednesday speech to Congress to bring Republicans on board.
"I think it's unfortunate, because it leaves open a legislative possibility that creates uncertainty in this process," Snowe said. "And I think it could give real momentum to building a consensus on other issues. I appreciate the fact that the president did demonstrate flexibility on the question in his speech Wednesday night, but it does leave it open, and therefore unpredictable."
The White House, however, was reluctant to let go completely.
"We should not let the whole debate devolve into this one question -- circulate around this one question -- and lose the best opportunity we've had in generations to do something very significant about a problem that ... is just getting worse," Axelrod said.
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