09/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

House Dems Rally Behind Public Option In Weekly Caucus Gathering

House Democrats dialed in Tuesday for their weekly caucus meeting and uniformly expressed support for a public health insurance option as part of comprehensive reform. Not a single member spoke up on behalf of co-ops, according to both people on the call and people briefed on it.

The weekly meeting is generally held in the Capitol basement, but during recess a members-only conference call takes place instead.

"There was tons of support for the public option," said one participant. Fifteen members spoke during the meeting, which was opened by Caucus Chair John Larson (D-Conn.), who then gave the telephonic floor to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

In the face of White House backsliding Monday, Pelosi reiterated that a public option is essential to reform. Pelosi gave the caucus a "pep talk," one attendee said, pushing the party to keep pressing the message. She assured an ultimate victory.

"Everyone has said on the record that they would support [the public option]. But there is a concern that the conference report would give them an out," said an aide briefed on the call by his boss. "Some people spoke up and said, 'We can't give in on the conference report.'"

If the House passes reform with a public option and the Senate moves a bill without it, the two chambers will meet in conference to negotiate a final bill. Some Democrats are concerned that conference negotiators will use the opportunity to yank out the public option. At the same time, there is a sense of fear among some members that the public option -- a critical component of health care reform, as far as most Democrats are concerned -- might be slipping away in favor of health insurance co-ops.

Wisconsin Democrats David Obey and Tammy Baldwin told the caucus about the performance of the state's own public health insurance option and co-op. The co-op hasn't saved the state any money whatsoever and shouldn't be a model for a national plan, said Obey, who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Baldwin concurred, adding that the state's public option -- seniors can buy state-sponsored health care for a nominal fee -- cut costs by two-thirds.

"I was surprised there were so many people who were still so firm on [the public option]," said a participant. "A lot of people were saying this is what they're hearing from their constituents."

A member who was not on the call said that typically leadership and senior members speak for a large part of the call and then open it up toward the end. Fifteen members, including leadership, voiced their opinions, according to notes from one listener.

Rep. Donna Edwards said that she'd been talking with small business leaders in her suburban Maryland district and found them fully behind the public option. She argued that Obama shouldn't be on the defensive.

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) spoke up passionately in defense of the public option, as did bill author John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), who said that 80 percent of her district backed it.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Reps. Jared Polis (Colo.), Allyson Schwartz (Pa.), Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas), Jerry Nadler (N.Y.) and Paul Tonko (N.Y.) also spoke up.

Nadler reiterated his pledge to oppose any bill that didn't include a public option.

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