The No. 2 Senate Democrat said Sunday that he's "open" to health care reform that doesn't include a government-run "public option," the latest indication that the Democrats' package could be scaled back as Senate negotiators try to hammer out a bipartisan compromise and constituents flood town halls to express discontent with the current legislation.
The so-called public option is a hot topic of debate at town hall meetings across the country. Supporters say it's needed to keep private insurance companies in check and extend affordable coverage to all. Critics warn that the government should not have so much control over health care and that a public option could eventually eliminate private insurance.
The Senate Finance Committee, the last of five committees to consider health care legislation, is trying to hammer out a bipartisan compromise by mid-September -- such a compromise might leave the public option behind.
Asked whether Democrats could support such a bill, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin said he's personally willing to consider it.
"It doesn't have to be a perfect bill," the Illinois Democrat said. "I support a public option, but, yes, I am open."
He said that assuming the Senate passes a bill, there will be another opportunity to revise it in the conference committee, where the House and Senate would try to smooth out the differences between their bills.
"So we'll see how this ends, but I don't want the process to be filibustered to failure, which unfortunately, many senators are trying to do. I want to make sure that we do something positive for the American people," Durbin said.
Analysts say that controversial elements like the public option may well be in jeopardy as members of the public voice their discontent with that and other issues at town hall meetings, and the timeline for negotiations grows longer.
Stripping the public option, though, could create problems on the other side of the aisle. It's unclear whether more liberal Democrats would support a bill that doesn't contain it.
Top Democrats like Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., have said the public option is vital.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell told "FOX News Sunday" that the health care plan as advanced by the Democrats is in "serious trouble."
"Americans are very skeptical about putting the government in charge of all of American health care. They're also skeptical as to whether it will be paid for," he said. "And even if they become convinced that it's paid for, then you have to look at how it's being paid for."
But McConnell said that even if negotiators put forward a system of nonprofit cooperatives instead of a public plan -- something President Obama reportedly is open to -- he still wouldn't support it.
"It sounds a lot like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to me," McConnell said. "No, that's not acceptable."
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said a "co-op" could be a "government takeover" by another name, adding that he'd have to see the details.
He said he wants to at least see the public option "off the table" before moving forward.
McConnell, though, rejected charges that Republican leaders don't want any deal and are only interested in stonewalling.
"We'd like to make a deal, but we'd like to make the right kind of deal. I mean, this is not about embarrassing anybody politically. This is about getting it right," he said.
Durbin suggested he wouldn't hold out too long for Republicans to come to the table.
"If it reaches the point where we cannot reach a bipartisan agreement, I don't want to see health care reform fail. We only get a chance once in a political lifetime to do something," he said.
Durbin and Cornyn spoke on CNN's "State of the Union."