In an effort that seemed designed to appease concerned progressive advocates, President Barack Obama issued a clarifying statement about the administration's commitment to a "public option" for health insurance while traveling in Russia on Tuesday.
"I am pleased by the progress we're making on health care reform and still believe, as I've said before, that one of the best ways to bring down costs, provide more choices, and assure quality is a public option that will force the insurance companies to compete and keep them honest," read the statement. "I look forward to a final product that achieves these very important goals."
The vague reassurance came hours after Obama's own chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel suggested that the White House would be comfortable with legislation that had a public plan "triggered" in only by worsening economic conditions.
"The goal is to have a means and a mechanism to keep the private insurers honest," Emanuel told the Wall Street Journal. "The goal is non-negotiable; the path is" negotiable.
It was, White House aides insist, far from a commitment to a trigger option. But a source close to the administration, who has been in contact with the White House on health care matters, said that Emanuel has been "floating" the trigger compromise since January.
"Rahm's problem with this is he is on the more conservative end of the Democratic Party and he is a very political guy," the source added. "He is working for a way out without a bloody fight. The problem is he doesn't mind taking that fight to the left. And what I worry could happen is the left will just quit."
Certainly Emanuel's remarks to the Journal presented a pill too big to swallow for many Democrats. "It is actually the most ludicrous of the compromises on the table," explained one activist. "It says we should wait until the health care crisis gets worse before it gets better."
And in the hours after the interview was published, the White House clearly sensed concern bubbling. Moving with haste, aides put out a statement from the president before any major firestorm erupted.
"I think it's more of a 'progressive groups don't freak the f*** out' statement," said one health care strategist.
In private, White House officials are concerned that the debate over a public option has become so volatile that it could end up derailing the entire health care package. The president has remained loyal to such a plan, but has not demanded the same from Congress.
"The President and every member of this Administration have been consistent," said one administration official. "They aren't drawing any lines in the sand that would give people an excuse to walk away from the bill, but the President's strong support for the public option is clear - and it shows in both the Senate HELP bill and the House tri-committee bill."
The real sticking point in the health care reform debate will come once the Finance Committee releases its bill -- which likely won't include a public option -- and is forced to merge its final language with that of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.
That should happen relatively soon. Lines are already being drawn in the sand. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Sen. Chuck Schumer, (D-N.Y.), said the trigger option was unlikely to get the type of support it needs from Democrats to pass through the Senate.
"My bottom-line criteria is that it has to be strong, national, and available to everyone on day one, to keep the insurance companies honest and I'm not sure we can get there," he said. "I've been talking to [Sen.] Olympia [Snowe] about this," he added, referring to the trigger option's main champion in the Senate, "but I'm not sure we can bridge that gap."
Outside government, activists seconded Schumer's statement, adding that if any compromise were to make it through Congress, it would be for a co-op plan that had robust purchasing and negotiating power.
"I think there could be some push for a co-op plan if it was national," said the strategist. "I'm not sure state-by-state will fly by itself."