‘Absolutely nothing has changed’

‘ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HAS CHANGED’…. The Obama administration seems to be putting some effort into reiterating its support for a public option today. Indeed, given the uproar over the last 48 hours, the White House almost seems to be arguing, “What’s everyone so excited about?”

The Obama administration is not backing away from its support for a public option as part of health-care reform, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius stressed Tuesday.

“Here’s the bottom line: Absolutely nothing has changed,” Sebelius said.

“We continue to support the public option. That will help lower costs, give American consumers more choice and keep private insurers honest. If people have other ideas about how to accomplish these goals, we’ll look at those, too. But the public option is a very good way to do this.”

Sebelius’ comments on Sunday — she told CNN a public option is “not the essential element” of reform — helped fuel speculation that the administration was willing to drop the measure from the legislation. Today, Sebelius told conference attendees, “All I can tell you is that Sunday must have been a very slow news day.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Democratic lawmakers, worried about a possible shift, overreacted to media reports. Gibbs added that this wasn’t a trial balloon. “If it was a signal, it was a dog whistle we started blowing three months ago, and it just got picked up,” he said. “It’s crazy. It’s not a signal.”

I tend to think Sebelius’ and Gibbs’ remarks are a little coy. No one, including the president, voiced a shift in administration policy, but it was hard to miss the fact that several prominent White House voices all started talking publicly — over the same weekend — about the possibility of reform without a public option. “Absolutely nothing has changed”? I suspect that’s true — Obama and his team wanted a public option before and still want one now. But the key here is whether the president expects to see a public option if/when a bill reaches his desk, and how much effort he’ll put into making that happen.

For what it’s worth, the public option isn’t dead, and the rather ferocious response from progressive Dems showed that its base of support remains enthusiastic about the idea. Ezra noted today, “It’s a fairly safe bet that the House bill will include a public option and the Senate bill will have a weak public option or some version of a co-op plan. Then the two will meet. What happens then?”

A conference committee, where the president apparently intends to shape the bill the way he wants it.