The Obama administration on Tuesday insisted that "nothing has changed" about its support for a government-run health insurance plan, after liberal Democrats threatened to abandon a health care reform bill that doesn't include the so-called "public option."
Liberal members of the party had protested after Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and President Obama in public remarks over the weekend referred to the option of a government-run plan as a non-essential element of reform.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., called the option "fundamental" to a package that brings "real change" to the system." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it the "best option," and one that has "strong support" in the House.
During a speech on Medicare Tuesday, Sebelius insisted the administration has been consistent in its support of the plan, pointing the finger at the media for reading too much into her remarks.
"All I can tell you is that Sunday must have been a very slow news day, because here's the bottom line. Absolutely nothing has changed," she said. "We continue to support the public option that will help lower costs, give American consumers more choice and keep private insurers honest."
Asked if Sebelius' earlier remarks were a signal that the administration was shifting position, Gibbs said, "If it was a signal, it was a dog whistle that we started blowing about three months ago."
He said the president has been "boringly consistent," having always preferred that a government-run health insurance plan be part of the bill but also being open to alternatives all along.
But Obama had earlier in the year described a public option as critical. It didn't sound that way Saturday at a town hall in Colorado.
"The public option, whether we have it or we don't have it, is not the entirety of health care reform. This is just one sliver of it, one aspect of it," Obama said, saying both sides of the debate have become "fixated" on the proposal.
Then Sebelius said in an interview Sunday that the option is "not the essential element."
That drew recriminations from the left, as some reform proponents threatened to walk out on the bill.
Ken Lisaius, former spokesman for President George W. Bush, said objections from powerful Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led the White House to rein in its trial balloon.