WASHINGTON - The White House and its Democratic allies on Sunday tried to play down the role of a government insurance option in health care legislation as the party in power worked to reclaim momentum on President Barack Obama's top domestic priority.
His spokesman described the public option as just one way to achieve Obama's goal of providing coverage to the estimated 45 uninsured Americans without insurance. His senior adviser contended the White House was ready to accept that Congress would reject the idea, though he, too, said it was an option, not a make-or-break choice.
Congressional Democrats took care to say the idea, backed by liberals and targeted by conservatives, is not a deal breaker in a debate that has consumed Washington for the summer and shows now sign of abating.
"I think that's a reasonable way to go. But I think it's important to stay focused on what we're trying to accomplish," said Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
Presidential press secretary Robert Gibbs stressed Obama's commitment to choice and competition and declared the public option "a means to an end, but it is not all of health care."
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill said the focus on this specific issue has become a distraction in a debate over how most people receive health care coverage.
"That's a small part of this," McCaskill said.
And Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said there's "more than one way to skin that cat" when it comes to lowering health care costs, stopping short of insisting that the overhaul include a public option.
Sen. Kent Conrad, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said his committee was nearing an agreement on legislation that would extend coverage to most uninsured Americans.
Republicans, though, did not seem swayed.
Sen. Orrin Hatch said an alternative to the broad overhaul could be as simple as providing subsidies to the roughly 15 million Americans who he said truly cannot afford coverage.
"C'mon, we're living in the real world here," said Hatch, who serves on the Senate Finance Committee. "People all over the country don't want this."
The public plan is envisioned as being offered alongside private coverage through a new kind of purchasing pool called an insurance exchange. At least initially, the exchange would be open to small employers and people buying coverage on their own.
While there's strong support for a public plan among House Democrats, the votes appear to be lacking in the Senate.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, the Republican who has proved a reliable collaborator with the White House, said Obama should just give up on the public option in favour of building consensus and that he should have done so during his Wednesday speech to Congress to bring Republicans on board.
"I think it's unfortunate, because it leaves open a legislative possibility that creates uncertainty in this process," Snowe said. "And I think it could give real momentum to building a consensus on other issues. I appreciate the fact that the president did demonstrate flexibility on the question in his speech Wednesday night, but it does leave it open, and therefore unpredictable."
The White House, however, was reluctant to let go completely.
"We should not let the whole debate devolve into this one question - circulate around this one question - and lose the best opportunity we've had in generations to do something very significant about a problem that ... is just getting worse," Axelrod said.
Obama kept up a steady weekend drumbeat of cheerleading for his health care plan in a campaign-style rally, on the radio and Internet, and on network television. He planned to continue the pace with more events designed to seize control of the health care debate following his address to Congress last week in which he urged Democrats and Republicans to come together.
On the president's agenda for the coming week was a speech Tuesday to the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh and an a health insurance address Thursday in a Washington suburb.
In public, the president is working to energize his supporters and persuade those who have insurance that a health overhaul is just as vital to them as it is to those who currently aren't covered. Behind the scenes, the president's team and Democratic lawmakers are in intense negotiations aimed at cutting a deal that can pass Congress - with or without Republican backing.
Republican leaders said they agree with Obama that the current health insurance system needs a change, but argue his plans are too costly and won't work.
Shaheen, Gibbs and Feinstein appeared on CNN's "State of the Union." McCaskill, Conrad and Hatch spoke with "Fox News Sunday." Snowe and Axelrod appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation."