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House Moves Closer to Healthcare Public Option

John Whitesides

A woman holds a sign to show her support for a strong public health insurance option in the health care reform bill in Coral Gables, Florida. (AFP/Getty Images/Joe Raedle)

WASHINGTON - Democrats in the U.S. House of
Representatives moved closer on Tuesday to agreeing on a broad
healthcare reform plan that would include the most liberal version of a
government-run public insurance option.

House members leaving an evening meeting with House Speaker Nancy
Pelosi said a "robust" public option was gaining support, buoyed by
preliminary estimates from budget analysts putting the cost of a bill
with the option at less than President Barack Obama's $900 billion target.

"The robust public option clearly outperforms the others,"
Representative Robert Andrews said after a two-hour meeting to discuss
the choices. "Members are searching for the best way to reduce the cost
of the bill and this is the best way."

The public option, favored by Obama and liberals as a way to create
choice and competition in the insurance market, has become a debate
flashpoint with critics calling it a government takeover that would
hurt private insurance companies.

Democrats will launch a head count on Wednesday to gauge whether a
bill that includes the strong version of a public option preferred by
House liberals had the 218 votes needed to pass.

"The robust option is going to be at 218 plus," Representative Raul
Grijalva said of a version that would peg reimbursement rates for
healthcare providers to Medicare, the health program for the elderly.

Two other versions of the public option considered in the House
would be based on reimbursement rates negotiated with doctors and
hospitals, which has been the approach favored by some Democratic
moderates and representatives of rural areas.


The inclusion of the strongest possible government-run public
insurance option in the House bill could force a confrontation with the
Senate, where the public option has less support and is less certain to
be included in a final bill.

Obama has made a healthcare overhaul that reins in costs, regulates
insurers and expands coverage to the uninsured his top domestic
priority, but progress has been slowed in both chambers of Congress by
battles over its size and cost.

Democratic House leaders, who have been meeting for weeks to merge
three healthcare bills into one, said they were close to making their
final decisions after the two-hour meeting.


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They had asked for budget estimates on the three versions of a
public option, and Pelosi said the preliminary estimates of the
Congressional Budget Office indicated all three would reduce the budget
deficit over 10 years, and at least two of the three would cost below
$900 billion.

"The preliminary estimates we've seen from the CBO enable us to make
our choices knowing that whatever choice we make will reduce the
deficit and will pay for the bill," said Pelosi, who did not release
the estimates.

A House Democratic aide said a bill with the "robust" version of the
public option favored by liberals was estimated to cost about $870
billion, down from the more than $1 trillion price tag of the three
original bills.

House members said the final CBO numbers were expected later this week.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released on Tuesday showed the
public option winning the support of a majority of Americans, 57
percent, but a top House Democrat said it was still short of the 60
votes it needed in the Senate.

"I'm told ... they have 53 to 54 votes in support of a public option
in the Senate," Representative Chris Van Hollen told Reuters.

Senate leaders met for a second consecutive night to work on merging
two healthcare bills into one for floor debate. Only one of the two
bills includes a public option.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said afterward the session,
attended by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, was another step
forward. "We're not completely to the point where the two bills are
together," he said.

A related proposal to boost Medicare payments to doctors ran into
trouble in the Senate on Tuesday as Republicans and some Democrats
balked at adding $250 billion to skyrocketing U.S. deficits over the
next decade.

Senator Richard Durbin said Democratic leaders lack the 60 votes
needed for the measure to overcome procedural hurdles in the 100-member

(Additional reporting by Donna Smith and Susan Heavey; editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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