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Obama Picks Fight with Left on Health Reform

Ian Swanson

In backing away from its support for a public option in healthcare reform, the Obama administration is picking a fight with the liberal wing of the Democratic party.

Liberal Democrats have insisted a public insurance option is necessary to ensure competition for private insurers. Just this week, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean predicted there could be Democratic primary challenges if a healthcare bill without a public option is approved by Congress.

Dean also told liberal bloggers gathered last week at the "Netroots Nation" convention that the only piece of reform left in the House bill that is worth doing is the public option.

The left wing of the Democratic Party already has been irritated by concessions its leaders have made on healthcare to centrists in the House and Senate.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) told CNN on Sunday it would be "very difficult" for her and other liberals to support legislation that does not include a public option.

"The only way we can be sure that very low-income people and persons who work for companies that don't offer insurance have access to it, is through an option that would give the private insurance companies a little competition," she said.

Johnson added that House liberals have already told Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that she should insist on White House support for a public option.

Some liberals are already disappointed with positions President Barack Obama has taken since his election.

For example, Obama hasn't moved to repeal the "Don't ask, don't tell" law on gays in the military, to the dismay of some liberals. Others were upset with his decision to not release photos detailing the abuse of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Over the weekend, Valerie Jarrett, a close adviser to Obama, was hissed at and booed by some attending the Netroots Nation gathering over the photo issue, according to a report in The Huffington Post.

Still, liberals might have a hard time dropping their support for landmark legislation reforming healthcare over the lack of a public plan, particularly if a final bill does set up co-ops. In addition, the dropping of a public option could make it easier for the bill to attract support from conservative Democrats and Republicans.

Rep. Mike Ross (Ark.), a Blue Dog Democrat who won several concessions for conservative Democrats in a House Energy and Commerce Committee healthcare bill approved by the panel just before the recess, said a final bill by Congress is likely to be written by the Senate Finance Committee.

"It's probably going to have to be bipartisan in the Senate, which I think it should be, and - so I know a lot of members in my party in the House don't want to hear this, but the reality is that what comes out of that conference report, which is what really matters, my guess is about 90 percent of it will be reflected from what's in the Senate Finance Committee," Ross said on CNN.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a key member of Finance involved in negotiations on the panel's bill, all but said a public option is dead in comments Sunday on Fox.

The administration signaled its shift on the public option in comments Sunday by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

Sebelius said that what the president sees as essential is to set up competition to private insurers in the healthcare system. But she said that doesn't have to come from a public health insurance option.

"Well, I think there will be a competitor to private insurers," she said on CNN. "That's really the essential part, is you don't turn over the whole new marketplace to private insurance companies and trust them to do the right thing. We need some choices, we need some competition."

A short time later, Gibbs stopped far short of earlier calls insisting on a public plan.

"What the president has said is in order to inject choice and competition ... people ought to be able to have some competition in that market," Gibbs said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

Asked if he was hedging on support for a public plan, Gibbs said, "The president has thus far sided with the notion that that can best be done with a public option."

Gibbs and Sebelius seemed to be making clear what Obama had hinted at on Sunday during a town hall event in Colorado broadcast across the country on cable television.

Obama, who has fielded questions at town halls from people worried about the public plan, described it as only a "sliver" or "aspect" of reform.

"The public option, whether we have it or we don't have it, is not the entirety of healthcare reform," Obama said at the town hall event in Colorado. "This is just one sliver of it. One aspect of it. And by the way, it's both the right and the left that have become so fixated on this that they forget everything else."

Republicans, signaling a victory, pounced Sunday afternoon on the administration's shift. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) office circulated a list of quotations from Obama to illustrate how the president had previously insisted on including a public option in a healthcare reform bill.

"I also strongly believe that one of the options in the exchange should be a public option in order for us to create some competition for the private insurers to keep them honest," Obama had said in an online town hall on July 1.

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