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The Fight for the Public Option Hits Home Stretch -- Is Obama Hiding?

Pressure from progressives led the White House back to the public option. But will it be in name only?

UPDATE: The Senate Finance Committee has delayed the vote, originally scheduled for Tuesday, on its health-care reform bill, pending receipt of a cost assessment from the Congressional Budget Office. The vote is expected to take place later this week. Committee member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is refusing to say whether or not he will vote for the bill, according to the Oregoniannewspaper, after committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., refused to let Wyden offer an amendment to the bill that would, according to the Oregonian's Dave Sarasohn, "allow people who have health coverage from their employer to go into the bill's insurance exchange and see if they can find a policy, or a company, they like better." Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., another committee member who has been critical of the bill, is also not saying whether or not he will cast a "yea" vote on Baucus' bill. We'll keep you posted.

For months, as Congress has debated health-care reform, President Barack Obama's tepid rhetoric about  the importance -- but not the necessity -- of a public health-care plan has caused anxiety among progressives.

Then the left got serious. When word dropped, via Politico, that Obama might use the occasion of his health-care speech before a joint session of Congress to skirt the public option, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee gathered a group of former Obama campaign staffers together (including a manager of the campaign's field operation) to sign a petition calling for the president to hold to his promise for the public option.

As former Obama staffer Mike Elk stated on AlterNet, "health care reform without a public option is not 'change we can believe in.'" Just a day before the speech, the petition and the list of signers ran as a full-page ad in the New York Times, garnering widespread television and radio coverage. Consequently, perhaps, the president gave a chunk of his speech to explaining his preference for a public insurance plan. Still, Obama seemed less than committed to a fight-to-the-finish on behalf of the public option.

Progressives weren't content to leave it there. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee teamed up with Democracy for America to launch television ads targeting senators -- including Democrats -- who stand in the way of the public option. PACs began raising campaign funds for pro-public option legislators, and the Accountability Now PAC promised primary challenges to those who fell out of step with progressive priorities like a public health insurance plan.

Lo and behold, the ground seemed to shift further with this weekend's news that President Obama and members of his administration have been quietly talking with reluctant lawmakers, trying to cut a deal for a public option.

It's hard to say whether Obama is responding to pressure from the left, or was always inclined to step back publicly from the public option while quietly cutting a back-room deal for its survival. But it's safe to say that the pressure from the left hasn't hurt, even if one Democratic senator, a public-option advocate, contends it has. But the senator in question, Chuck Schumer of New York, almost has to say that: He's deeply involved in getting fence-sitting Democrats to come his way on the public plan when it's time for a vote.

With one committee left to vote on its bill later this week, Senate leadership will soon begin the work of hammering out that body's final health-care bill, a combination of the legislation drafted by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which contains a public option, and the one expected to be offered by the Finance Committee ( the committee will vote on its bill today ), which does not. If the final Senate bill does not include the public plan, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has signaled that he will carry the issue to the Senate floor in the form of an amendment. Failing that, the public plan could still survive via a budget maneuver when the House and Senate bills are reconciled in the conference committee.