On Tuesday, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said that he is open to a public health insurance option as long as it doesn't undermine existing private insurance plans. Nelson had previously said he would be organizing a coalition of senators opposed to such an option which Americans with no or inadequate insurance could buy into.
The public statement comes after a week of apparently contradictory remarks at home in Nebraska.
Nelson has been at the center of the health care debate for several weeks, initially telling CQ that a public option that Americans could buy into, and that would compete with private plans, was a "deal breaker."
"At the end of the day, the public plan wins the game," said Nelson. He told CQ he was planning on forming a coalition of Democratic senators also opposed to a public plan. That didn't happen.
During last week's recess, he made news by telling a broad group of health care reform advocates that, in fact, he was open to a public option.
Over the weekend, he told the Lincoln Journal Star that he had "not closed [his] mind to any option." But then he added, according to the paper, that "he's opposed to opening the door to choice between a government and a private plan." Yet he wants to "see how a public plan is crafted."
Health care overhaul advocates insist that without a serious public option that would compete with private insurers, any legislation is just tinkering around the edges.
The D.C.-based group Change Congress, which has been battering Nelson for being too close to the insurance industry because of the millions it has given to his campaigns, latched on to the Journal Star article.
"'Ben Nelson opposes giving Nebraskans health care choice.' - Lincoln Journal Star," blares a petition being targeted to voters in Nebraska, launched on Wednesday. "Why would Nelson oppose competition in the marketplace and giving Nebraska families a choice in health care? Do his political contributions from out-of-state special interests have anything to do with it?"
So what does Nelson think of a public option? We found him in the Senate hallway Tuesday and asked him to clarify his position. He seemed ready for the question.
"I thought I made it clear when I first said it and I'll say it the way that I think it's maybe clearer. First of all, I never said that I'd be against looking at a public option or looking at anything. There is no plan out there. I've been accused of being against the president's plan, but the president doesn't have a plan. There are ideas out there," he said.
"I said I'd look at the possibility that they could come up with a public option, but the line in the sand is still drawn: If it is the kind of public option that would erode or destabilize the private insurance under the private market that 200 million Americans currently have. So I thought that was clear. The position hasn't changed -- just hopefully I've got it clearer."
What kind of a public option would you object to? What would give a public option an unfair advantage?
"Well, if it was subsidized," he said. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is pushing compromise legislation that would require the public plan follow the same rules as private insurers and receive no public subsidy.
"You could go through a list of things that would [give it an advantage]," said Nelson. "That if it costs less because it was subsidized. Now, I don't know how private and public compete. That's why I've got an open mind. I'll take a look at anything that's proposed and reserve the right to my own judgment about whether it would or wouldn't erode a private, market-based system."