07/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Max Baucus Backs Off Claim He's "Fighting Tooth And Nail" For Public Health Care Option

Max Baucus is "fighting tooth and nail" to make sure a public health care option is included in the final overhaul package that goes through the Senate, his chief of staff, John Selib, told a Montana town hall during last week's recess.

Baucus himself, however, has never gone that far, simply saying that a public insurance option that any American could buy into is "on the table."

The Senate is now back in session. We caught up with Baucus, the Democratic chair of the Finance Committee and the lead health care negotiator, and asked him if Selib had characterized his support of a public option accurately.

"Public option, in all its variations, is very much on the table," replied Baucus.

Yeah, but are you fighting tooth and nail for it?

"Public option, in all it's variations, is on the table and I'll fight tooth and nail," he said, then paused and added, "for a version that works, if we can get it passed."

Baucus scheduled 20 health care town halls last week in Montana, where his constituents came out overwhelmingly in favor of single-payer health care or a more aggressive public role, battering Baucus for not going far enough.

Baucus himself, however, was not at any of the meetings and sent a staffer and a video recording instead.

"I had personal commitments," Baucus explained to the Huffington Post, just before boarding a bus headed down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.

The pressure appears to be having some effect, however small. On Wednesday, Baucus will meet with advocates of universal, single-payer health care. So far, he has said that single-payer is off the table and has refused to allow its advocates to sit in negotiations. And, in fact, they've been arrested for trying.

Baucus will hear from Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and the lone sponsor of a single-payer bill, as well as several advocates: Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine and a senior lecturer at Harvard; Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee and national vice president of the AFL-CIO; Geri Jenkins, a nurse and co-president of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee and practicing registered nurse; and Dr. Oliver Fein, president of Physicians for a National Health Program and associate dean at Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

"I'm meeting some advocates tomorrow. I'll listen to anybody--their views, what they think, why they think that's important. We'll just talk about that," Baucus said.

While Baucus has been reluctant to meet with advocates of a single-payer system, he's been keen to include the GOP in negotiations, and said he hopes that the president pushes the party to continue to do so.

"I hope [Obama] tells us it has to be bipartisan. I think it has to be bipartisan, if it's sustainable and meaningful," he said.

Ryan Grim is the author of This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America, due out later this month

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