The top Democrat in the House of Representatives insisted Tuesday that a government-run insurance option was "essential" to passing President Barack Obama's health reform plan.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's comments followed growing suggestions that the so-called "public option" could be jettisoned or delayed in a final compromise intended to secure Obama's top legislative priority.
"I believe that a public option will be essential to our passing a bill in the House of Representatives," Pelosi said after meeting Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House.
"As the president has said... he believes that the public option is the best way to keep the insurance companies honest and to increase competition."
Pelosi said that the vast majority of Democratic members of the House supported the public option -- which has been seized upon by Republicans to suggest Obama plans a government takeover of the private healthcare system.
Earlier, one of Pelosi's top lieutenants, House Majority leader Steny Hoyer said that though he backed a public option, he could still support a bill that did not include it.
"I believe the public option is... a choice, an alternative that people ought to have which would enhance competition," Hoyer told reporters.
"On the other hand, I've said I hope we move the bill. There's a lot in the bill that is good in addition to the public option.
"If the public option wasn't in there I still could support the bill because I think there's a lot in there that is good."
Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, who was also in the meeting with Obama, voiced support for such an entity -- though some senior Democrats have expressed certainty it has no chance a winning support in the Senate.
Obama is expected to argue in favor of the government entity to compete with private insurers to help Americans who have no health coverage in his major address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.
But the White House has declined to say whether he would threaten to veto legislation that did not have such an option.
Reports on Tuesday suggested growing support in the Senate for a system of non-profit cooperatives to replace a government-run entity in the healthcare market.
Another possible compromise would see the public option used only in a "trigger" mechanism, to come into force if insurance firms did not live up to new requirements to broaden access to health care over a specified time period.
Copyright AFP 2008, AFP stories and photos shall not be published, broadcast, rewritten for broadcast or publication or redistributed directly or indirectly in any medium