Senate lawmakers, still hoping to forge an 11th-hour bipartisan agreement on health care reform, are floating the idea of a bill that would create a set of benchmarks that private insurance agencies must meet to avoid triggering a government-run health insurance plan.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a member of the "Gang of Six" Senate negotiators who met Friday in hopes of brokering a deal to increase access and affordability of health insurance, has proposed creating such a "trigger."
No benchmarks have been offered yet, but they could be drawn from goals stated in the House bill that passed on party lines before the summer recess, as well as objectives outlined by President Obama, the Office of Management and Budget and other principles put forward on both sides of the aisle.
Under such a compromise, if agreed-upon benchmarks are not met, then that would pull the trigger on government-run insurance. Lawmakers need to decide how fast a so-called public option would be instituted, how many people it would cover and how it would affect private insurers and consumers.
The goal is to find common ground for Republicans and some Democrats who got an earful this summer from constituents vehemently opposed to a government-managed health care system.
The town halls were so heated that they may have convinced Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., who faces a tough re-election next year, to come out this week and say the government-run plan is too expensive.
But even before the town halls, several Democrats announced they could not support the so-called "public option."
Mary Landrieu of Louisiana has been a solid "no" vote for months. Ben Nelson of Nebraska has routinely called it a deal-breaker for him. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut has been a long-time opponent, and Kent Conrad of North Dakota, the Budget Committee chairman, is not afraid to call the current House bill doomed in the Senate. Even Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has said more affordable alternatives are available.
Several other Senate Democrats have also expressed misgivings or announced they could vote either way, depending on cost. They include Sens. Tom Carper of Delaware, Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Bill Nelson of Florida and Evan Bayh of Indiana.
Obama knows reforms are in trouble, which is why he's giving a speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. Democrats say they expect him to tell them that if opposition to a government-run insurance program jeopardizes other reforms, dump it and pass the rest of the package.
Those circumstances have opened the door for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to say a trigger alternative to a mandatory, government-run public health insurance option is something to consider. That's a sea change for Pelosi, who insisted as recently as this week that a so-called "public option" is essential.
But the test for the "Gang of Six" Senate negotiators is to figure out what the triggers would be.
Baucus on Friday offered few details after the group's telephone conference.
"We agree we need to take control of health care costs and make health insurance affordable for families and small businesses. We agree all Americans should be able to choose -- and be able to afford -- a quality health care plan. And, we agree health care reform should be fiscally responsible and not add to the deficit," he said in a statement.
Not a lot of time is left to figure out those issues if the committee tries to stick to Baucus' Sept. 15 deadline for a Finance Committee vote on a bill that has yet to be written. And the challenges for that deadline are considerable given that one primary complaint among town-hall audiences was that few of the lawmakers preparing to vote "yes" had read the 1,000-page House bill.
FOX News' Carl Cameron contributed to this report.