Illustration by Zack Soto

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA may be facing tacit opposition to his planned health care reform over the coming months from an unlikely source: Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden. While Obama supports a national public health insurance option, Wyden has so far refused to do so, and his reluctance is creating tension among Democrats in Oregon and across the country.

Last Tuesday, June 2, the president directed the chairmen of two Senate committees he has charged with crafting health care reform to focus their efforts on a plan that includes a national "public health insurance option operating alongside private plans."

"This will give [Americans] a better range of choices, make the health care market more competitive, and keep insurance companies honest," Obama wrote in a letter to Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts (chairman of the Senate committee on health, education, labor, and pensions) and Senator Max Baucus of Montana (chairman of the Senate finance committee).

Meanwhile Senator Wyden, who also sits on Senator Baucus' finance committee, seems to disagree with President Obama on the national public health insurance option, which Wyden's 2006 bipartisan health care reform bill excludes.

Wyden's bill, the Healthy Americans Act, was co-sponsored by Republican Utah Senator Robert Bennett, and will serve alongside the president's letter as a basis for the finance committee's discussions on health care reform. Senator Bennett is on record saying he will oppose any health reform with a national public insurance option and Wyden's office has cited bipartisanship as a reason not to support the public insurance option. Nevertheless, Wyden's reluctance to support an idea now explicitly favored by the president has some influential Democrats concerned.

"Bipartisanship is a great thing," said former chairman of the Democratic National Committee Howard Dean last Friday, June 5, at a health care town hall at Portland Community College on N Killingsworth, organized by Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer. "But I do not think bipartisanship is the end. I think it's the means, and if we have to sacrifice a great health care bill to get bipartisanship then it's time to throw bipartisanship over the side."

Dean even called on Wyden by name when asked what the audience could do to make a national public health insurance option a reality.

"Ron Wyden," he said. "We don't know where he's gonna be on this yet. And you can push him very hard on this and you should. The clear, focused message is that there must be a public insurance option... that this is the price of public support."

Unlike Dean, Wyden's fellow Oregon Democratic Senator and congressmen have so far been noticeably silent when it comes to criticizing Wyden's plan in public, despite their support of a national public health insurance option.

"Senator [Jeff] Merkley supports a national public option that would be open to all Americans," says Merkley's spokeswoman, Julie Edwards, when asked what her boss thinks of Wyden's plan. "I'll leave it at that."

"I think people will speak for themselves," said Blumenauer after last week's town hall when asked why he wouldn't criticize Wyden's plan directly. "I'm not trying to pinpoint anybody or call anybody out."

"I think we're just seeing the other federal elected officials defer to the senior elected official in the state," says Don Loving, spokesman for the Oregon chapter of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which has run radio ads criticizing Wyden's plan over recent weeks. "They don't want to trash the senior Senator from this state. If it was [former Republican Oregon Senator] Gordon Smith still in office I'm sure they'd be freer with their criticism. Dean is not an elected official in the state of Oregon, so he feels much freer to criticize the senior Democrat," Loving says.

Wyden's office responds by saying the Senator is "open" to the idea of a national public option "as long as it is responsibly financed."

"The president has said that he wants a public option and Senator Wyden has said on many occasions that he is open to a public option," says Wyden's chief of staff, Josh Kardon, stopping short of expressing Wyden's actual support for the idea, but adding: "Of course he is sincere. Words mean something."

Responding to Dean's criticism, Kardon says: "Mr. Dean is a great politician, but I'm virtually certain he has never once talked to Senator Wyden about health care."

When asked whether Wyden's fellow Oregon Democrats may have been reluctant to criticize him for the reasons alleged by Loving, Kardon responds: "That's a rather dark view.

"I think he has earned respect from his colleagues because no one has worked harder on health reform for over 30 years," Kardon continues. "And they may not fully agree with him but they know that he's going to do the right thing."

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on Wyden's plan by press time.