Dem Senator: Public option is dead; Update: Sebelius video added

If Barack Obama hoped to rescue his vision of a health-care system overhaul with his wan effort in the New York Times, a key member of the Senate Democratic Caucus threw a bucket of cold water on those hopes this morning.  Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) told a television audience that the pursuit of a public option for coverage was a “wasted effort” that would kill any hope of passage in the upper chamber.  Obama, said Conrad, should exercise more humility in approaching a government role in American health care — and even Obama’s key Cabinet member agrees:

“Look, the fact of the matter is there are not the votes in the U.S. Senate for the public option, there never have been,” Conrad said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.”

“So to continue to chase that rabbit is, I think, a wasted effort,” Conrad said.

His comments followed Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s remark that a public option is “not the essential element” to ensure competition in the health insurance market. Sebelius made the remark on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

A public option is included in legislation moving through the House, and is backed by liberals, who would feel betrayed if it is not a part of a final bill. They see a public insurance plan as critical to ensure that private insurance companies offer coverage and lower costs.

Sebelius signaled a big shift in the White House position today.  It looks as though Barack Obama may have realized that the failure to get the bill finished before the summer recess has killed the Trojan horse through which the White House hoped to accomplish the nationalization of health care. It sounds as though Obama wants to alert Democrats at town-hall meetings to stop defending the public option and expect to see it removed from the bills when Congress returns in September.

Conrad’s abandonment of the public option underscores the necessity of the shift.  Conrad comes from a red state with a high degree of populism, which might have been expected to back ObamaCare and the public option.  It hasn’t worked out that way when Democrats went home to visit constituents.  Not only have red-state voters become passionately opposed to government takeover of health care, but independents and even some liberal districts have seen a high degree of anger and fear of losing a system that works for most Americans.  When opponents of ObamaCare get cheers in townhall meetings with Rep. Keith Ellison in one of the most liberal districts in America, MN-05, we know that advocates have something to fear from voter backlash in 2010.

The big question will be whether liberal Democrats will allow anything to pass without a public option.  Three weeks ago, I would have said that Democrats would have passed anything to allow Obama to escape this trap while saving face.  I’m not sure that’s possible any longer.  The biggest threat now would be that both the Senate and the House might pass separate bills without public options, and then have it restored in conference committee.  This is no time to get complacent.

Update: Politico has the video clip of Sebelius gently retreating from the public option:

A White House aide said in an e-mailed statement Sunday afternoon that “nothing has changed” in the administration’s approach.

“The president has always said that what is essential is that health insurance reform must lower costs, ensure that there are affordable options for all Americans and it must increase choice and competition in the health insurance market,” said Linda Douglass, communications director for the White House Office of Health Reform. “He believes the public option is the best way to achieve those goals.

But taken together, the remarks from Obama, Sebelius and Conrad suggest the White House is preparing supporters for a health care compromise that may well exclude the government option — which could help Obama win enough votes for a sweeping overhaul but touch off a nasty battle inside his own party between liberals and more moderate members who have resisted a bigger government role in health care.

Pass the popcorn, and expect this to get nasty on the Left.

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