POLITICS
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Silent On Public Option In Speech To Senators

As President Obama finished his speech to the Democratic caucus in the Capitol's Mansfield Room on Sunday afternoon, Joe Lieberman made his way over to Harry Reid.

The independent who still caucuses with Democrats wanted to point something out to the Majority Leader: Obama didn't mention the public option.

Lieberman was beaming as he left the room and happy to re-point it out when HuffPost asked him what Obama had said about the public health insurance option, perhaps the most contentious issue still facing Democrats as they negotiate their way toward a final health care reform bill.

"Well, it was interesting to me -- of course everybody hears with their own ears -- that he didn't say anything about the public option," said Lieberman. "In other words, when he outlined how far we've come on the bill, he talked about the cost-containment provisions; he talked about the insurance market reforms; and he talked about enabling 30 million more people to get insurance. He said these are historic accomplishments, the most significant social legislation, or whatever you call it, in decades, so don't lose it."

Obama spoke for roughly 30 minutes and did not take questions, senators said afterward.

Reid told reporters that Lieberman had approached him after the meeting to note the absence of the public option, but that folks shouldn't read too much into Obama's silence on the issue. "That doesn't mean it's not an issue, because the president didn't talk about it," said Reid.

Obama's reluctance to stand up for the public option has been a source of contention between Reid, who is pushing for it, and Obama. Reid has asked five progressive senators and five conservatives to work out a compromise on the public option. The group will meet again Sunday afternoon, though without guidance from the president.

White House spokesman Bill Burton also mentioned insurance reform and affordability in his statement about the meeting, but neglected to mention the public option. "The president thanked members of the Senate for their hard work so far and encouraged them to continue forward on this historic opportunity to provide stability and security for those who have insurance, affordable coverage for those who don't and bring down the cost of health care for families, small businesses and the government," he said.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said that Obama is working with Lieberman behind the scenes and that his failure to mention the public option doesn't meant the president doesn't support it.

"Well, he didn't mention either abortion or the public option," said Harkin, a strong backer of the public option and a chairman of the health committee. "He just laid out in very stark terms for us what the future would be if we didn't pass [health care reform]. I think he's right. I think it would be devastating. Not just for us as a party, I think for the hope that people have that we're going to actually make these changes. To fail at this would just again be another one of those things where people say, 'See, Washington doesn't work. Washington can't get anything done. We gave the Democrats all that power and nothing happens.' And it would be depressing to people. We want to be more hopeful, we want to give people hope. So I thought his message on that was right on target."

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), a member of the Finance Committee's erstwhile Gang of Six, also said that Obama spoke in historical terms.

"He didn't get into the details," said Bingaman. "His message was: This is a very important thing to do for the country. A lot of people will benefit if we enact health care reform. It's been a longtime in coming and we need to get it done."

Reid said that Obama called the most significant social legislation since Social Security. Bingaman said that Obama told his party: "It's as important as anything we've done since FDR."

UPDATE: The consensus emerging from this evening's meeting between liberal and conservative Democratic senators on the public option is that little progress was made, but that talks will continue. Much of the discussion focused on a proposal involving responsibility for the Office of Personnel Management that the Huffington Post reported on Saturday. The most notable development may have been that, according to a Democratic staffer, Lieberman sent staff to attend. Lieberman himself has not been involved in public option negotiations since he has ruled out any variety of one. But earlier Sunday he said he hadn't yet formed an opinion on the OPM plan and wouldn't support it if it relied on government money. It's difficult to see how the proposal is anything of a substitute for a public option and, indeed, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said earlier Sunday that it was being considered on its own right, no longer looked at as an alternative to the public option. But things are fluid in the Senate.