WASHINGTON (CNN) – Americans are gripped by "an awful lot of concern, fear, anxiety" and "frustration" in the health-care debate, a key Senate Democrat warned Friday.
The description of an increasingly nervous national mood illustrates the growing challenge facing President Barack Obama and supporters of health-care reform as Congress prepares to return in less than three weeks.
"I think America has been traumatized by the debate," Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a moderate Democrat, said on the CNN Radio show "44" with Ed Henry.
Nelson, considered a critical swing vote in the Senate, bemoaned what he called the "misinformation" and "misunderstanding" that has characterized so much of the debate. He highlighted the confusion over a provision in the House version of the health-care bill that includes coverage of end-of-life counseling for Medicare beneficiaries who want it.
The provision - which opponents claim would create federal "death panels" to discourage care for the sick and elderly - was recently dropped by Senate negotiators.
"I am ... trying to help people understand the difference between fact and fiction coming out of Washington," Nelson said.
Nelson, whose traditionally conservative state voted against Obama last year, was non-committal on what may be the most politically explosive question of all: whether there should be a government-funded public health insurance option to compete with private insurers.
"If the public option is not in the ... position where it could destabilize the insurance that currently 200 million Americans have, that
certainly makes it more palatable," he said. "... (But it's) hard to sign onto anything until you've seen everything."
One of the top Senate negotiators, Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, has insisted that a public health option cannot get the 60 votes required to overcome a Senate filibuster. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, however, asserted Thursday that a bill cannot pass the House of Representatives if it does not include a public option.
The public option has been cleared by three committees in the House as well as by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
But a bipartisan group of six negotiators on the Senate Finance Committee - the last committee that needs to clear health-care legislation before it can be taken up on the Senate floor - is currently considering dropping a public option in favor of non-profit cooperatives that would negotiate collective polices for members.
Nelson said he is "at least neutral" and "not negative" toward the idea.
Some top Democrats have responded in recent days by hinting that they may instead try to short-circuit the traditional Senate legislative process by passing a health-care bill through an obscure tactic known as reconciliation, a type of budget maneuver that requires only a simple majority - 51 votes - to pass.
Such a maneuver would boost the prospects for Senate passage of a public health option. But Republicans have equated such a move to legislative warfare.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs reiterated Friday that the president remains committed to crafting a bipartisan bill.