Over the weekend, the White House enraged health care reformers by dangling the public option over the edge of a cliff.
On CNN's State of the Union, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the public option is "not the essential element" of reform.
And, at a Saturday town hall forum in Grand Junction, CO, President Obama himself said
, "[T]he public option, whether we have it or we don't have it, is not the entirety of health care reform. This is just one sliver of it, one aspect of it."
White House Office of Health Reform Spokeswoman Linda Douglass sought to contain the controversy late Sunday, saying "nothing has changed," and that Obama still believes the public option is the "best way" to lower the cost of health insurance and create competition in the market. But that will come as little solace to liberals, who have watched the White House waver over the issue for weeks.
The administration has been all over the map on the importance of the public option ever since it became the main battleground of the health care reform fight, pitting liberals against skeptics and raising the ire of reform opponents.
Back in July, Obama said health care reform legislation "must include an insurance exchange: a one-stop shopping marketplace where you can compare the benefits, cost and track records of a variety of plans - including a public option to increase competition and keep insurance companies honest - and choose what's best for your family."
Later, though he issued a caveat: "I think in theory you can imagine a cooperative meeting that definition. Obviously, sort of the legal structure of it is less important than practically how can it operate."
House progressives, meanwhile, have vowed to oppose a health care reform bill that doesn't include a public option--an inconvenient reality for the White House, and one which could set the stage for a major show down after the August recess comes to the end.