TWO STEPS FORWARD ON PUBLIC OPTION, ONE STEP BACK…. The letter to Senate leaders on passing a public option through reconciliation picked up its 22nd and 23rd signatures over the last day, with Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) joining their colleagues.

Far more discouraging, though, were remarks from Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), an enthusiastic supporter of the public option, who conceded yesterday he’s not inclined to pursue the measure through reconciliation.

“I’m probably not going to vote for that, although I’m strongly for the public option, because I think it creates, at a time when we really need as much bipartisan[ship] … as possible. ”

Rockefeller added: “I don’t think you [pursue] something like the public option, which cannot pass, will not pass. And if we get the Senate bill — both through the medical loss ratio and the national plans, which have in that, every one of them has to have one not-for-profit plan, which is sort of like a public option.”

In making his sentiment known, Rockefeller becomes perhaps the most unexpected skeptic of the public-option-via-reconciliation route. The Senator was a huge booster of a government run insurance option during the legislation drafting process this past year.

It’s worth clarifying that Rockefeller seems to support approving changes to the Senate bill through reconciliation, consistent with the White House plan presented yesterday, but is opposed to pursuing a public option through this route.

As much as Rockefeller’s work on this has been appreciated, his rationale isn’t exactly persuasive. He’s afraid of appearing “partisan”? Funny, Senate Republicans, who refuse to give legislation up-or-down votes at levels unseen in American history, don’t seem to worry much about appearances.

Nevertheless, as a practical matter, Rockefeller’s hesitancy may very well make the larger effort impossible. Dems would need at least 50 senators to give the public option a chance, and Rockefeller was considered a likely ally, not opponent.

Unless Rockefeller changes his mind — or unless he’s bluffing as some kind of larger and hard-to-understand strategy — an uphill climb has gotten considerably steeper.

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.