‘LEANING TOWARD’ A PUBLIC OPTION…. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) briefed Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and other Democratic “centrists” this morning on the status of the discussions merging the two Senate health care reform bills.

Nelson wasn’t thrilled with what he heard, but it sounds awfully encouraging to me.

“I keep hearing there is a lot of leaning toward some sort of national public option, unfortunately, from my standpoint,” said Nelson, a key swing senator. “I still believe a state-based approach is the way in which to go. So I’m not being shy about making that point.”

Nelson’s comments underscore what has appeared to be a significant movement in recent weeks towards the public option. If Reid and the White House included a public option in the Senate bill, it would signal remarkable shift from where Democrats and Republicans thought the debate was headed after the tumultuous August recess.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) added, “What I’m hearing is this is the direction of the conversation.”

Now, you’ll no doubt notice the caveats here. Nelson talked about what he “keeps hearing,” and Conrad used similar language. In other words, this is still in the realm of scuttlebutt. It’s informed scuttlebutt — Nelson and Conrad have been briefed on how the discussions are going — but it’s not in the take-it-to-the-bank category.

That said, if what Nelson and Conrad are hearing is accurate, it’s very encouraging news for reform advocates. If the merger talks produce a bill that includes a public option — and that’s reportedly where there’s “a lot of leaning” — it’ll take 60 votes to get it out on the Senate floor. It’s why these negotiations are so important — it’ll be far easier to protect the public option that’s already in the bill than muster the votes to get the public option into the bill.

It’s why Nelson’s and Conrad’s comments have such blockbuster potential. We’ve all been wondering if, and to what extent, Reid, Baucus, Dodd, and White House officials would pursue a public option. These comments suggest that’s where we’re headed.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

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.