Senate, House lean toward public option

WASHINGTON — House Democrats are coalescing around an $871 billion health care package that would create a government-run insurance plan to help millions of Americans afford coverage, raise taxes on the nation's richest families and impose an array of new regulations on private insurers, in part by stripping the industry of its long-standing exemption from federal antitrust laws.

Senate Democratic leaders, meanwhile, huddled with President Obama on Thursday, and lawmakers said Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was increasingly leaning toward the idea of including a version of a public insurance option, albeit one that would allow states to opt out of such a system, in the chamber's bill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her top lieutenants said Thursday that they are close to corralling the 218 votes they need to move forward with comprehensive legislation that would include a version of the public option prized by liberals as a fundamental pillar of reform.

House leaders were still trying to defuse a number of lingering disputes, including a battle over abortion. But senior lawmakers said that major sections of the measure have been locked in and that a final bill could be made public as soon as Monday in preparation for debate before the full House early next month.

"We feel very confident we have the votes to move forward," said Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., the third-ranking House Democrat, as he emerged from the latest of dozens of meetings aimed at uniting the Democratic rank and file. "We want to make sure that when we do our 'Kumbaya' moment, that we're all there."

Across the Capitol, Senate leaders also hope to open floor debate next month, but the public plan has emerged as a major sticking point. Liberals, led by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., are seeking support for an "opt-out" provision that would create a government plan but allow states not to participate. Others worry that if Reid adds a public plan to the package he is crafting from two competing Senate bills, moderate Democrats will join Republicans in voting to block the bill from reaching the Senate floor.

The discussion continued at the White House late Thursday, where Obama was noncommittal on the opt-out idea, according to senior Democratic aides who were briefed on the session.