THE NOTION OF A DEAL-BREAKER…. Senate HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is fighting pretty hard for a public option as part of health care reform, and seems fairly confident that about the provision’s prospects. But Harkin realizes that some in the Democratic caucus are not yet on board.

“The vast majority of the Democratic caucus is for the public option that is in the HELP bill,” he said. “Should the 52 [in favor] give in to the five, or should the five come along with the majority?”

The answer depends on just how much someone hates the idea of a public plan competing with private plans. It’s not uncommon to hear center-right lawmakers say they support health care reform, but can’t support a plan with a public option. Matt Yglesias had a good item this morning, arguing that it’s a position worth pressing.

So far there’s been basically no pressure in the media on members who take this position to justify their extreme level of opposition. I get, for example, that Kent Conrad supports the Finance Committee version of health care and opposes adding a public option to it. But suppose a public option does get added. Does that suddenly take a vast package of reforms that he played a key role in crafting and turn it into a terrible bill? Why would that be? Surely Conrad is as aware as anyone else in congress that in order to pass a large, complicated health reform bill many senators are going to have to vote “yes” on a bill that contains some provisions they oppose. After all, the health reform bill contains hundreds of provisions!

Are moderate members really so fanatically devoted to the interests of private health insurance companies that they would take a package they otherwise support and kill it purely in order to do the industry’s bidding on one point?

Good question. The onus tends to be on progressive lawmakers who insist on a public option. The typical question for them is straightforward: are you really willing to kill health care reform over one provision? But Matt’s suggestion turns that on its head, and redirects the question to lawmakers who ostensibly support reform, but think the idea of a public plan is the wrong way to go: is the idea so offensive that it’s worth killing the entire initiative, decades in the making, letting this once-in-a-generation opportunity pass?

Take Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), for example, who’s worked in good faith to find a reform compromise she can support. She’s said, more than once, that she wouldn’t support a bill that includes a public option, but she could support a reform bill with a “trigger.”

But using Matt’s framework, Snowe’s position is that much more difficult to understand. She wants a reform bill and is prepared to support one, despite party pressure. But as Snowe sees it, her vote is conditional on a public option later vs. a public option sooner?

Really? She opposes public-private competition that much?

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.