WASHINGTON (CNN) – The Democratic leaders of the House and Senate on Thursday signaled their willingness to drop a government run public health insurance option from a final health-care bill.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in comments at separate news conferences, said they would support any provision that increases competition and accessibility for health insurance –whether or not it is the public option favored by most Democrats.
They spoke the day after President Barack Obama called the public option a preferred but non-essential element of overhauling the nation's ailing health-care system. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Thursday that the president's speech the night before to a joint session of Congress "reiterated the public option is not the be-all, end-all in health-care reform."
Pelosi, who said as recently as Tuesday that a public option was essential for passing a health-care bill in the House, on Thursday used language on the issue similar to Obama's speech.
"This is about a goal. It's not about provisions," Pelosi said, adding that as long as legislation meets goals of "affordability and accessibility and quality … then we will go forward with that bill."
She said she still thinks a public option is the best way to achieve those goals, but when asked if inclusion of a public option was a non-negotiable demand - as her previous statements had indicated - Pelosi ruled out any non-negotiable positions.
Reid was asked about a Senate proposal that calls for non-profit health insurance cooperatives instead of a public option.
"The purpose of a public option is this: to create competition, which is so important, and create quality health care," he said. "… .So if we can come up with a concept of a cooperative that does just that - that is, it makes more competition and it makes the insurance companies honest - yes, I think that would … fill the bill."
The non-profit public option has become the focal point of the health-care debate.
Republicans are unanimous in opposing a public option, calling it an unfair competitor that would drive private insurers from the market and lead to a government takeover of health insurance. Democrats reject that claim as a false allegation intended to scare people.
However, some moderate Democrats also reject or question a public option as too expensive and too much government intrusion in health care. At the same time, liberal Democrats insist on a public option as necessary to achieve true reform of the health insurance industry.
In his speech to Congress, Obama invited alternatives that fulfill his requirement that health-care legislation must increase competition for insurance coverage to lower costs and expand accessibility.
Democratic proposals passed by three House committees and one Senate committee include a public option, but a compromise bill being negotiated by six members of the Senate Finance Committee - three Democrats and three Republicans - has dropped the provision.
In addition, the White House has been talking to moderate Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of the Finance Committee negotiators, about her idea for a trigger mechanism that would bring a public option in the future if health-care legislation fails to meet thresholds for expanding coverage and reducing costs, Snowe confirmed to CNN on Wednesday.
Moderate Democrats who are uneasy with a public option, such as Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, have said they could support a trigger mechanism. Such support could gain a health-care bill the 60 Senate votes necessary to overcome any filibuster attempt by Republicans.
"Obviously, there are details we haven't seen yet and those will be very important," Nelson said after Obama's speech. "It's not clear if public option is still alive and whether it will be upfront or in the back with a trigger or not in the plan at all."
–CNN's Dana Bash contributed to this story.