HOUSE LOOKS TO SENATE FOR HCR ASSURANCES…. The NYT reports that congressional Democrats have “no clear path forward on major health care legislation,” and party leaders have “effectively slammed the brakes” on the entire policy initiative. The piece makes it sound as reform is all but dead.

From what I can gather after talking to a variety of sources, the Times has overstated matters. The road ahead is far from encouraging, but all hope is not lost.

Indeed, when it comes to the House, there’s growing evidence that the chamber really can pass the Senate bill — if only the Senate would give the House some signals about improvements that could be approved. House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) made some encouraging remarks yesterday, and Brian Beutler’s report after last night’s caucus meeting offer additional hope.

Leading Democrats in the House still insist that “all options are on the table” to move ahead on health care. But for the first time since last Tuesday’s special election in Massachusetts, it’s clear that they’re coalescing around the most widely discussed option: moving ahead with the Senate bill once it’s clear that it will be changed through the filibuster-proof reconciliation process. Before they can move ahead, they need the Senate to make some real headway on their end of the bargain — and they’re not getting the signs they need.

Several leading House members, including Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), said they’re prepared to move forward with this approach.* “The hang up, they now say, is not on their end, but that they first need a high sign from the Senate that the two chambers can work in lockstep.”

What’s needed, then, is 50 Senate Democrats willing to agree to changes — improvements senators were prepared to accept just two weeks ago — that would finally produce a breakthrough.

That should be easy. It’s not. While 60 Senate Democrats voted for a comprehensive reform just a month ago, there may not be 50 Senate Democrats willing to accept minor changes now. Why? Because they’re scared after Massachusetts’ special election.

Indeed, several knowledgeable sources have told me that pro-reform calls to the House have helped stiffen spines — a week ago, 218 appeared impossible; now it appears doable — but it’s the overly-cautious, risk-averse Senate that needs to receive public pressure. The upper chamber has become so terrified, it’s apparently reluctant to do or say much of anything — so much so at yesterday’s caucus meeting, senators literally didn’t mention health care at all.

Over the last few days, every relevant player has come to realize that there are two real choices: (1) failure; or (2) House passes the Senate bill, Senate agrees to some minor changes. If you’d pressed me last week, I would have said there’s a 5% chance this is going to work out. Now, I’d put the number at maybe 20%, higher if the White House starts trying to make this happen.

The odds are long, and the smart money is still on failure, but I’m not jumping out the window yet.

Pass. The. Damn. Bill.

* edited for clarity

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

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.