DEMS ‘EMBOLDENED’?…. CBS News runs a headline on this AP piece about the health care debate that reform supporters will probably find encouraging*: “Democrats May Unite On Public Health Plan.” The story doesn’t exactly reflect that, but it’s nevertheless encouraging to see at least one Democratic senator step up his game.

Emboldened by polls that show public backing for a government health insurance plan, Democrats are moving to make it a politically defining issue in the debate over the future of medical care.

Behind-the-scenes attempts to get a deal with Republicans on nonprofit co-ops as an alternative to a public plan have led only to frustration, complains a key Democrat. He and his colleagues may have to go it alone, said Sen. Chuck Schumer.

The co-ops were seen as perhaps the last hope for compromise on a contentious issue that threatens any remaining prospects of bipartisan support for President Obama’s sweeping plan to remake the health care system.

Schumer has not always been a consistent progressive champion, but by all appearances, he’s showing some real leadership on this issue right now. To his credit, Schumer even rejected the co-op proposal gaining steam among Republican and “centrist” Democrats: “I don’t think I could say with a straight face that this (co-op proposal) is at all close to a nationwide public option. Right now, this co-op idea doesn’t come close to satisfying anyone who wants a public plan.”

What’s more, the recent polls are giving Schumer a hand in pressing his colleagues: “The polling data backs up our subjective view that to make health care reform work, you need a public option.”

It leads to a test for the Senate caucus: back an effective plan that enjoys public support, or pursue an inferior bipartisan alternative.

We know Senate Republicans have said a public plan option is a step they are simply unwilling to take. We also know that for Democratic “centrists,” GOP opposition has them scrambling for plausible alternatives.

But E.J. Dionne recently posed some questions that these “centrists” should ponder: “Where did we get the idea that the only good health-care bill is a bipartisan bill? Is bipartisanship more important than whether a proposal is practical and effective? And if bipartisanship is a legitimate goal, isn’t each party equally responsible for achieving it? … It’s one thing to compromise to pick up votes, which, one hopes, is what Baucus is doing. It’s another to compromise in exchange for nothing at all. The first is bipartisanship with a purpose. The second is the bipartisanship of fools.”

* edited for clarity

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.