President Barack Obama's bid to overhaul the U.S. healthcare system appeared to get a boost on Thursday when the top Democrat in the House of Representatives signaled interest in a Senate Democratic compromise.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi voiced support for one element of the tentative accord -- to expand Medicare, the government health insurance program for those age 65 or older.
"There's certainly a great deal of appeal about putting people 55 and older on Medicare," Pelosi told reporters as the Senate conducted its 11th day of debate on sweeping legislation.
"That is something that people in the House have advocated for years," she said.
But Pelosi withheld comment on the rest of the deal reached by Senate Democratic negotiators on Tuesday, saying, "We haven't seen the paper."
Still, Pelosi's upbeat comments about expanding Medicare suggested she might be open to embracing the compromise even though it did not include a government-run public health insurance option that she has long advocated.
The public option has been a major stumbling block as Democrats seek to craft a bill that could pass the House and Senate and be signed into law by Obama, who has made healthcare reform his top domestic priority.
The House passed its version of the legislation on Nov. 7. It includes a public option. Senate Democrats hope to pass a bill by the end of the year and both chambers must pass a unified measure before Obama can sign it into law.
Supporters of a public option have argued it would create competition for private health insurers and help drive down skyrocketing costs. But critics say it would be a first step toward a costly government takeover.
Pelosi again voiced support for the public option, but unlike past comments, did not say it had to be part of a final bill.
The Senate took a break from healthcare on Thursday afternoon, moving to a wide-ranging spending bill after debate stalled on an amendment to allow patients and pharmacies to import cheaper prescription drugs from other countries, including Canada.
Senators plan to return to the healthcare debate on Monday.
The Senate Democratic negotiators' agreement replaces the proposed public option with a national non-profit plan featuring policies offered by private insurers and administered by the government office that oversees coverage for federal workers.
The federal Office of Personnel Management would negotiate with private insurers to offer national non-profit health plans similar to those offered to federal employees.
Some senators praised a provision to allow people aged 55 to 64 to "buy in" to the Medicare health plan. But others questioned the impact on Medicare's already shaky fiscal future.
Pelosi said she has been open to a better idea, provided there is one.
"What I've said is ... We (Democrats) in the House believe that the public option is the best way to hold insurance companies honest -- to keep them honest and also to increase competition. If there is a better way, put it on the table," she said.
Obama has favored -- but not demanded -- a government-run public option as part of a bill to overhaul the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare system.
Obama praised the tentative agreement reached by Senate Democratic negotiators and said it moved Congress toward passing final legislation.