07/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Blue Dog Effort Threatens Dem Unity On Public Option

The key conservative House Democrat who backed a public health care option last week appeared to be backing off that pledge Thursday afternoon when he joined conservatives calling for compromise rather than specific health goals.

"We're really not here today to discuss a particular bill or even provisions. We're here to discuss the target we should be aiming at, which is bipartisanship," said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), the vice chairman of the Blue Dog Health Care Task Force, who proved instrumental in dooming Clinton-era health reform.

[UPDATE: A Cooper spokesman said in an e-mail, "Jim still personally favors a public plan. He just thinks health care reform will die if it's not bipartisan ... Jim is trying to sound the alarm that while reconciliation only requires 51 votes, the rule prohibits many of the changes required for health care reform. So, we shouldn't do bipartisanship just because it feels nice to work together; we should do it because that's the only way the Senate can pass a bill that actually reforms the health care system. "]

As an example of bipartisan compromise, Cooper cited the health care plan outlined Wednesday by former Senate majority leaders Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and Howard Baker -- a plan that does not include a federal public option. He joined Mike Castle (R-Del.), Parker Griffith (D-Ala.) and Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) to demand a final bill promoted by both sides of the aisle. The other three members of Congress also prioritized cost containment but declined to detail their goals for access or quality of care.

This wouldn't be the first time Cooper has torpedoed health care reform by stripping away the support of Blue Dogs and the business community. In June 1993, Cooper met with Hillary Clinton to argue for reform that looked like his 1992 managed-competition bill rather than Clinton's employer mandates and universal coverage.

That fall, two weeks after the Clinton health care bill went public with mandates and universality intact, Cooper publicly decried the plan and re-released his own bill. The Clinton reforms went down in flames the following year, after Republicans united against it and Cooper's bill split Democrats.

When Cooper began appearing as an Obama surrogate on health care last year, Mike Lux, who worked on the Clinton health care package in the White House, said "no Democrat did more to destroy our chances in that fight than Jim Cooper."

"He quickly became the leading spokesman on the Democratic side for the insurance industry position, and undercut us at every possible opportunity, basically ending any hopes we had for a unified Democratic Party position. I was never so delighted to see a Democrat lose as when he went down in the 1994 GOP tide," Lux wrote. "Unfortunately, he came back, like a bad penny."

Last week, Cooper told the Huffington Post, "I'm for a public option. I like Chuck Schumer's approach. It does not have a trigger in it ... Some people are more comfortable with health reform as an issue than others. I've been doing it for a long time, so I've been more accustomed to it."

This was shortly after he told constituents at a town hall much the same thing. WATCH:

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