UPDATED, 2:48 P.M.--Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., has further distanced herself from the Obama administration and Democratic leaders on health care, telling a crowd Tuesday at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences that she opposes a public health insurance option because it would be too pricey. Her spokesman said today that her remarks suggest the Senate Finance Committee is moving closer to a bill that is unlikely to include a government-run alternative to private insurance.
Lincoln is a member of the panel but is not on the bipartisan team of negotiators, led by Finance Chairman Max Baucus.
"Although Senator Lincoln has maintained that she is hopeful that a competitive option will emerge, she has expressed skepticism in the past about a public option in terms of its cost," said the spokesman.
Earlier this summer, Lincoln said she would back whatever healthcare package worked. In her Tuesday remarks, however, she said she will vote only for a bill that is deficit-neutral. Legislation that does not restrain costs in the out years would be "pointless," she added.
"For some in my caucus, when they talk about a public option, they're talking about another entitlement program, and we can't afford that right now as a nation," Lincoln said, according to the Arkansas News.
Democratic Arkansas Reps. Vic Snyder and Mike Ross also recently expressed skepticism about a public option. Snyder said in August he is not a proponent of such a plan, even though he would not vote against a bill including one. For his part, Ross said he expects legislation without a public plan to pass before the year's end.
But another key Democrat reinforced his support for the public option Tuesday. At a rowdy town hall meeting in Waldorf, Md., Majority Leader Hoyer tried to debunk claims that such an option would strip employees of their private plans. "Let me be clear," Hoyer said. "This is an option. No one would be required to join the public option."
Meanwhile, three GOP senators said coverage of the uninsured could be expanded without adding to the deficit. Senate Minority Leader McConnell and Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Mel Martinez, R-Fla., argued their case Tuesday as they spoke at a Republican-led healthcare forum at a hospital near Miami. "We have committed generational theft against our kids," said McCain, as quoted by a local CBS affiliate. The South Florida chapter of the AFL-CIO organized a protest outside the event, which was not open to the general public.
In related news, an aide to Senate Finance ranking member Charles Grassley said today the bipartisan talks would continue as planned, but she cited "attacks by political operatives in the White House" as a risk to the effort.
"Anyone who's been working on an alternative plan - one that would actually drive down costs and not drive up the deficit, knows how difficult the issues are, and that Democratic senators involved in trying to work through the details have as many questions about how proposals would actually achieve reform goals as Republicans," said Grassley aide Jill Kozeny.
"The House and [Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions] committee bills are policy failures and they've been rejected at the grassroots. In the Senate Finance Committee, work continues to see if it's possible to develop an alternative that would improve the system and, as a result, get widespread support," she added.