ADDRESSING THE STUPAK PROBLEM…. Make no mistake: the dispute over indirect, circuitous abortion funding may pose the single biggest threat to the fate of health care reform. It very nearly derailed the initiative late last year, and it may yet be the one hurdle reform cannot clear this year.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) is the leading voice of this contingent — mostly Roman Catholic Dems from the Midwest who are otherwise inclined to support the legislation — and he claims to control 12 “yes” votes. This number, to be sure, has fallen — in November, Stupak said he held sway over 40 votes. As of a couple of weeks ago, it was 20. Now it’s 12.

But given the razor-thin margin for error here, if a dozen “yes” votes turned to “no” votes over abortion, Democratic leaders would have to scramble to find 12 Blue Dogs willing to switch in the other direction. That may not be a realistic option.

So, what are the options? The preferred approach is to make the case to Stupak and his allies on the merits — the Senate compromise language, endorsed by center-right Dems who oppose abortion rights, already does what Stupak & Co. want, which is to prevent public funding of abortion. Given that Stupak’s arguments seem to stray from reality already, reason may not win him over.

The approach Democratic leaders broached yesterday was trying to find another compromise.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Thursday that lawmakers could draft separate pieces of legislation with abortion language to earn the support of anti-abortion rights Democrats on healthcare reform legislation. […]

“Separate pieces of legislation could be passed that would relate to that,” Hoyer told reporters after a meeting with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) “That’s a possibility. I talked to Mr. Stupak today, and I’m going to be talking to him next week and he indicated he wanted to have some discussions with people. And I will do that.”

Striking a deal would itself be tricky. Abortion language isn’t budget related, so it’s unlikely to work in a reconciliation fix. What Hoyer seemed to be describing was a third bill — (1) health care reform, (2) the “sidecar” reconciliation measure, and (3) a measure related to abortion funding.

I’ve generally been unimpressed with Stupak’s willingness to negotiate in good faith, but at this point, he’s at least at the table. He reportedly had a constructive meeting yesterday with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) — arguably the single best health policy negotiator in Congress — and Stupak told the media late yesterday, “Once we see the language, maybe we can work it out with the language.”

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.