Administration Official: "Sebelius Misspoke."

An administration official said tonight that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius "misspoke" when she told CNN this morning that a government run health insurance option "is not an essential part" of reform. This official asked not to be identified in exchange for providing clarity about the intentions of the President. The official said that the White House did not intend to change its messaging and that Sebelius simply meant to echo the president, who has acknowledged that the public option is a tough sell in the Senate and is, at the same time, a must-pass for House Democrats, and is not, in the president's view, the most important element of the reform package.

A second official, Linda Douglass, director of health reform communications for the administration, said that President Obama believed that a public option was the best way to reduce costs and promote competition among insurance companies, that he had not backed away from that belief, and that he still wanted to see a public option in the final bill.

"Nothing has changed," she said. "The President has always said that what is essential that health insurance reform lower costs, ensure that there are affordable options for all Americans and increase choice and competition in the health insurance market. He believes that the public option is the best way to achieve these goals."

A third White House official, via e-mail, said that Sebelius didn't misspeak. "The media misplayed it," the third official said.

Appearing on Face the Nation, press secretary Robert Gibbs said that fostering competition and choice were non-negotiable, but the specific mechanism designed to do so was up for discussion. That's been interpreted as a signal that the White House is getting behind the idea of adding publicly owned health cooperatives to the menu of choices that consumers without insurance will recieve. Still, this isn't exactly a walk-back -- the White House, Gibbs included, have mused favorably about the co-ops before.

On Saturday, Mr. Obama defended the public plan before an audience in Colorado Springs. At the same time, he said that the government option was not the single critical element of reform, pointing instead to the provisions preventing insurance companies from discriminating against people, requiring them to offer plans to everyone, and capping premium increases.

"The 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," Obama said.

This has been a refrain the White House has used for weeks, but not until Saturday did Mr. Obama voice it so explicitly.

The perception that the White House had backed away from the public plan has roiled many prominent Democrats, who took to their blogs, and to Twitter, to protest.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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