“The fact of the matter is there are not the votes in the United States Senate for the public option. There never have been,” he said. “So to continue to chase that rabbit I think is just a wasted effort.”

Conrad and other negotiators on the finance committee are instead pushing a system of nonprofit insurance cooperatives, as an alternative to the public plan.

“Co-ops are very prevalent in our society,” Conrad said. “They’ve been a very successful business model.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius also told CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday that a public option is “not the essential element” in reform legislation. The statement comes after Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said last week that he’s “open” to a bill with no public option.