REID’S MUDDLED SUPPORT FOR A PUBLIC OPTION…. On a conference call yesterday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) emphasized his support for a public option as part of health care reform. That support started sounding a little shaky, though, when the Democrats’ Senate leader explained what he means by “public option.”

“I’ve told people, whoever will listen, that I am in favor of the public option,” Reid said in answer to a participant who asked why he hasn’t been more vocal on his position. “We’re working now to try to come up with a program that would allow that to take place.”

Reid said a public option is essential to provide competition to private insurance companies that enjoy an exemption from federal anti-trust laws.

He added that “a lot of people misunderstand” the public option as “some government run program.”

“But there are many ways we can do it,” he said. “One would be to have an entity like Medicare. I really don’t favor that. I think what we should have is a private entity that has direction from the federal government.”

This comes as something of a surprise. Reid “really” doesn’t “favor” a Medicare-like public option, which I thought was largely the point of the public option. The “private entity,” rather, sounds like a co-op.

Reid’s perspective on this is no small matter. As the Senate Majority Leader, if Reid balks on a real public option, and prefers co-ops, the chances of the final Senate bill including a genuine public option are remote. Reid’s challenge of rallying support for a bill along the lines of the HELP Committee’s legislation would be hard enough under the current circumstances. If he’s announcing, “I really don’t favor” a “government-run” plan, the hurdle becomes insurmountable.

Reid spokesman Jim Manley later told Brian Beutler, “The govt could contract w a private company to administer the public option. [Sen. Reid] is willing to consider a co-op if he is shown it works to make insurers honest.”

That doesn’t exactly clear up what it is Reid will be fighting for in September.

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Steve Benen

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.