Senator: Public option is close to gaining votes

(AP) - A proposal for government-backed healthinsurance is close to gaining the 60 votes needed to pass theSenate and probably will be in overhaul legislation, a SenateDemocratic leader said Sunday.

A proposal for the public option that is gaining wide supportwould allow states to choose not to participate in a government-runinsurance program, said New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, thethird-ranking Senate Democrat. The "opt out" proposal is drawingsupport from many liberal and moderate senators and less oppositionfrom lawmakers wary of government insurance, he said.

Although Democrats control the 60 votes needed to advancelegislation under Senate rules, not all Democrats support creatinga government-run health insurance program - the biggest point ofcontention in the debate over President Barack Obama's top domesticpolicy priority.

Negotiations in recent days have focused on crafting a publicoption that would satisfy liberal and moderate Democrats and notdrive away others.

Sen. Ben Nelson, a centrist Nebraska Democrat who objects to anational government-run insurance program, said he would beinterested in a proposal that allows states to participate only ifthey ask to join. He called this approach an "opt in" program.

Nelson's support would be critical in reaching the 60-votethreshold needed to prevent Republicans from using Senate rules toblock final passage of legislation.

"I think if you go with a state-based public option, you canget bipartisan support," Nelson said. "I think we're all morecomfortable, the people will be more comfortable if the states areengaged in taking care of the situation, recognizing that Utah'sproblems and California's problems are different than Nebraska'sproblems."

Sen. Sherrod Brown, a liberal Ohio Democrat, said the publicoption is needed now to provide competition in regions where one ortwo insurance companies dominate the market.

"I'm fine with the state opt out," Brown said. "If Nebraskaor Utah doesn't want to do the public option, their governor andlegislature can pass a law saying, 'We're not going to give ourcitizens that right to have a public option."'

Schumer said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is leaningstrongly toward an opt-out public option. Reid, who would make thefinal decision about bringing legislation to the Senate for a vote,led a delegation of Democrats to the White House on Thursday todiscuss the issue with President Barack Obama.

Obama has said he strongly supports a public option as a way ofdriving down costs by providing competition to private insurers.But the president has said it is not essential to achieving thebroad goals of health care legislation.

Another approach to creating an alternative to private insuranceis setting up nonprofit cooperatives, an idea that has been pushedby Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, chairman of the Senate BudgetCommittee.

Senate Republicans, who number just 40 in the 100-memberchamber, oppose the public option in any form.

"It doesn't make any sense at all," said Senate Republicanleader Mitch McConnell. "In fact, I think 100 percent ofRepublicans have indicated they don't think having the governmentin the insurance business is a good idea."

Republicans fear that allowing the government to sell insurancewould ultimately lead to a federal takeover of the health caresystem.

In general, the legislation would remake America's $2.5 trillionhealth care system with a new requirement for most Americans topurchase health insurance, and government subsidies to helplower-income people do so. Insurers would face new restrictionsagainst dropping coverage for sick people or denying coverage topeople with pre-existing health conditions.

The government provides health care to the elderly and indigent,but the rest of Americans must rely on private insurance, and mostreceive coverage through their employers. Nearly 50 million don'thave any insurance at all.

Schumer appeared on NBC television's "Meet the Press," Nelsonwas on CNN's "State of the Union," and McConnell spoke on ABC's"This Week."

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