WAITING FOR ‘MARCHING ORDERS’…. At this point, there’s some appetite among House Dems to pass the Senate health care bill, then make changes through reconciliation. There’s also some appetite among Senate to give the House what it needs to get this done.

But both chambers are waiting for “legislative marching orders” from the White House. And no one has the foggiest idea what President Obama or his team want, are prepared to fight for, or will present tonight in the State of the Union.

There’s been no clear message on the way forward for health-care reform. No clear articulation of preferences. No public leadership to speak of. The administration is taking temperatures rather than twisting arms. The White House press team is blasting out speeches where the president says he’ll never stop fighting on health care but pointedly refuses to throw a punch. The president is giving interviews where he seems to endorse paring the bill back and also seems to argue against doing anything of the kind. The daily message has run from banks to freezes, and early leaks suggest that tonight’s speech will focus on education.

According to multiple sources, there’s an easy answer for the confusion: The White House is confused. Some in the president’s inner circle, including Rahm Emanuel, want the bill pared back. Something is better than nothing, they say, and if Congress doesn’t have the votes for the full bill, the White House can’t be left fighting a losing battle. Others argue that the White House’s refusal to lead is a self-fulfilling prophecy, killing a bill that’s comprehensive enough to work and close enough to pass while pinning hopes to an unknown compromise bill that probably won’t work and almost certainly won’t get the liberal Democrats or moderate Republicans necessary for passage.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried. Recent signals from the White House (see here and here) lead me to believe the West Wing’s instincts on this are wrong. Officials seem to think the “consensus” approach — House passes Senate bill, Senate agrees to changes — just won’t have the necessary support and therefore isn’t worth investing the time, energy, and capital needed to make it happen.

I genuinely believe that a full-throated, unapologetic defense of the health care proposal in the SOTU would boost its prospects enormously. But I have a hunch the president doesn’t genuinely believe that at all, and sees no upside to sticking his neck out even more. If I had to bet money, I’d say the president will keep it vague tonight, endorsing “health care reform” generically, but coming up short of bold leadership on the issue.

But there’s one angle here that often goes overlooked and bears repeating: lawmakers don’t necessarily need “legislative marching orders” from the White House.

Congress is its own branch, with its own leaders. It’s in members’ interests — and the public’s interests, and the economy’s interests — to get this done. Congress should realize what needs to be done — whether it gets instructions from the White House or not.

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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.