Government Insurance 'Trigger' Draws Bipartisan Criticism in Health Care Debate

Conservatives and liberals alike are puncturing the latest trial balloon in the health care reform debate, finding flaws with a proposal that would keep a government-run health insurance plan on reserve in case private insurance companies don't meet certain benchmarks.

The so-called "trigger" has been floated by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a member of the "gang of six" Senate negotiators who are trying to broker a bipartisan compromise. Under such an option, if agreed-upon goals are not met by the insurance industry, then that would pull the trigger on government-run insurance.

It's unclear whether President Obama will address the idea when he delivers a high-stakes health care address to Congress Wednesday night. But even as the White House signals it's open to considering alternatives to a hard-and-fast "public option," administration officials and congressional negotiators are hard-pressed to find an alternative that could win more votes than it loses.

Liberals complained the trigger would likely prevent a public option from ever being implemented. Conservatives complained, to the contrary, that it would act as a surefire public option -- only several years down the road.

"If you say to the government bureaucracy, 'As long as you find it has failed, you get to build a brand-new bureaucracy,' you have a guarantee the trigger's going to go into effect. I mean, you're only delaying for four years what will become a 100-year problem," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told "FOX News Sunday."

Gingrich said Republicans probably would not find the trigger more acceptable than the current plan.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele also described it as a smokescreen last week.

"Do you really think what he gets and signs at the end somewhere will not have the appropriate triggers in place that eventually sets that in motion?" he said.

But a campaign is already underway on the left to take the trigger off the table before it gains traction. urged members over the weekend to flood the White House comment page with opposition to the idea.

"We can't afford to wait for real health care reform," the group said in an e-mail, arguing that "the need for real reform was 'triggered' long ago."

"The trigger would make the creation of a public option dependent on whether insurance companies, years in the future, met a series of conditions -- rather than creating one now. In truth, the 'trigger' is a trap to kill health care reform. Even if the 'trigger' conditions are met years from now, big insurance companies will start the fight all over again to stop the public option from going into effect," the message said.

Former Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean suggested the trigger would be a pointless attempt to win over "one Republican" and assailed the idea on "FOX News Sunday."

"The problem is it won't work. It doesn't add anything. If you're going to do that, just do the insurance reform," Dean said, when asked whether a trigger, or a co-op system, would be acceptable. "So you know, I'm very hopeful that (Obama) will stick to his guns and that we'll have the reform we were promised in the campaign. If, for whatever reason, he chooses to go in a different direction, then I'd scale back the bill. I wouldn't spend five cents on it."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday acknowledged talks over the trigger option and seemed to speak approvingly of it. But hours later, she issued a statement reaffirming her commitment to a "strong public option."

"A bill without a strong public option will not pass the House," she said.

In the run-up to the president's speech, strong voices on the left and right are urging drastic action.

Dean suggested an all-or-nothing approach, urging Obama to "stay the course" on a public option.

"If you don't use your majorities, you lose your majorities," Dean said.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Gingrich suggested the administration take a more incremental approach to reform. Alexander said Obama should declare to the American people on Wednesday that it's time to "start over."

White House advisers are raising expectations for the address, hinting that the president will go into persuasive detail about what he wants achieved.

"(Viewers will) leave that speech knowing exactly where the president stands, exactly what he thinks we have to do to get ... health care reform done this year," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told ABC's "This Week," adding that he would "draw some lines in the sand."

"I think that he'll engender great support for where he wants to go," White House adviser David Axelrod said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

But White House aides would not say, if push comes to shove, where Obama stands on the public option or alternatives like the trigger.

"I'll let the president address the specifics on Wednesday," Axelrod said when asked about the trigger. He said Obama thinks the public option is "valuable" but that, "It shouldn't define the whole health care debate."

Gibbs also said Obama thinks a government-run insurance plan is a "valuable tool," but suggested he would not demand it.

"I doubt we're going to get into heavy veto threats on Wednesday," Gibbs said. "He will talk about the public option and why he believes and continues to believe that it is a valuable component of providing choice and competition."

Gibbs said the administration has not "closed the doors on Republicans that are ready, able and willing to work with the president to try to provide a solution."

The backlash to the trigger does not mean the administration will rule it or other alternatives out. Several Senate Democrats have opposed a concrete public option, and analysts say the president would be wise to find some way to bring them back to the table.

The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes said Obama will probably opt for a trigger.

"It is inconceivable to me that the left will actually fight him on this if he decides to go the route of a trigger option," Hayes said. "I think he'll propose some kind of a trigger. He will hold up Olympia Snowe as the Republican idea behind this trigger so that he can call it bipartisan, however implausible that might be."