Two House Democrats who favor a government insurance plan, a central element of health care legislation passed in their chamber, acknowledged Sunday it might have to be sacrificed as negotiators work out a final agreement with the Senate.
Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 Democrat in the House and one who had appealed to President Barack Obama not to yield on the public plan, set out conditions for yielding himself.
Asked during rounds on the Sunday news shows whether he could vote for a final bill that does not embrace a public plan, Clyburn said: "Yes, sir, I can."
Clyburn added: "We want a public option to do basically three things: Create more choice for insurers, create more competition for insurance companies, and to contain costs. So if we can come up with a process by which these three things can be done, then I'm all for it. Whether or not we label it a public option or not is of no consequence."
While insisting "it's not dead," Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said he recognizes realities in the Senate, where Democrats had to scrape up every vote from their side even to pass a bill without a government plan to compete in the private insurance marketplace.
"Before the House was to give up the public option, we would want to be persuaded that there are other mechanisms in whatever bill comes out that will keep down premiums," said Van Hollen, appearing to sketch out a bottom line without a government plan necessarily included. "We've got to make sure that the final product is affordable."
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., underscored the divisions Democrats will need to bridge when negotiators from the House and Senate meet next month to reconcile the two bills. He said there will need to be more give on the House side than the Senate, which took weeks to find the 60 votes needed for passage.
"If we are going to have a final law, it will look a lot more like the Senate version than the House version," Menendez asserted.
The Senate's Christmas Eve achievement brought the nation closer than it's been for generations to a new order in health insurance, one that would eventually require nearly all Americans to get coverage, help many pay for it and restrict onerous insurance company practices such as denying coverage to people with pre-existing sickness.
But nothing will change for anyone until the House and Senate can settle on common legislation, pass it and send it to Obama to sign.
The high stakes have both parties hoping they can find a few converts from the other side. Nearly every Republican in Congress has opposed the measures.
"If some of the Republicans would come forward with suggestions — offer a vote or two, or three or four — to take away the need to have every last one of the 60 Democrats, you'd have a much better bill in accordance with the tradition of the Congress, especially the Senate, on bipartisanship," said Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, himself a party switcher.
Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina voiced similar hope, to opposite ends — "a few Democrats to stand up in the House that maybe didn't before and help us stop this thing."