Hoping for new momentum for a government-run insurance program after a poll showing increased public support, Senate Democrats instead found questions about the survey's accuracy and continuing doubts among moderate members.
A Washington Post/ABC poll trumpeted "clear majority support" for a public option, but Senate Democrats, who met privately to discuss health care, were still struggling to define what a government-run plan would look like.
"People here are still talking about what kind of public option," Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. said. "There are those who are going to be absolutely opposed to any plan that is just a precursor to a single-payer system."
Nelson, who met Tuesday with fellow Democratic moderates in an effort to gauge where the group stands on a reform bill, pointed to the Post poll's finding that when people were asked about a plan to allow states to establish their own public option for those who cannot afford other insurance, support surged from 54 percent to 76 percent.
"The problem is that we all talk about the public options as though they are all the same, when they are not," Nelson said.
A handful of Senate leaders met privately Tuesday night to continue trying to draft a final bill and they appeared no closer to resolving whether to include some kind of government plan.
"We're leaning toward talking about a public option," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid joked.
Ed Goeas, president of the Tarrance Group, a Republican polling firm, called The Washington Post headline proclaiming an upward swing in support for a public option "misleading" and pointed to other data in the survey, including responses that showed 45 percent of Americans "favor the broad outlines of the proposals now moving in Congress, while 48 percent are opposed, about the same division that existed in August, at the height of angry town hall meetings over health care reform."
Goeas and other Republicans questioned the makeup of the poll's sample because of the results. A CBS/New York Times poll in late September that phrased the question differently found support for Democratic health proposals 15 points lower than the Post poll. In the Post survey, 33 percent of respondents were Democrats, 20 percent were Republicans, 42 percent were independents and 4 percent were members of another party.
The survey didn't seem to sway key moderate votes on the public option.
Senate Democrats are well aware of the public wariness evidenced in most poll numbers and it is influencing even more liberal lawmakers.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., for instance, said Tuesday he would prefer a public plan that allows doctor to negotiate reimbursement rates, rather than tie payment to Medicare, which many liberals believe is an essential element of the public option.
"My preference is for a strong public option, but I'm a realist and I know I'll be having to make some compromises," Cardin said.
-The first version of this story incorrectly stated that the Post did not provide the party identification of the respondents to its poll.