It’s only Clyburn’s plan right now, but Clyburn’s number three in the House. And besides, they’re running out of alternatives.

The comeback for Democrats — if there is one — will begin in an all-important closed-door caucus meeting next week in the basement of the Capitol, where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her top lieutenants will try to undo the damage of the August recess and convince their wobbly members that a vote for health care reform will not cost them their jobs in 2010.

Leaders say their strategy is to convince members that nothing is set in stone and that they are more than open to negotiations. And they’re engaging in a softer sell, prioritizing health insurance reforms while pitching the public option as something that’s way, way down the road.

“We’re going to ask, ‘Where are you now? Is there something we need to add to get [you] to vote for this?’” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is charged with ensuring that the party’s most vulnerable members are reelected in 2010…

Clyburn, for his part, is advocating a “two step” approach in which the most widely supported health insurance reforms, like coverage for pre-existing conditions, go into effect immediately, while the public option is framed as a distant step — something that would go into effect in 2013, only after benchmarks and pilot programs are studied.

Clyburn has proposed setting up modest pilot programs for the public option in certain regions or states — an experimental way of seeing whether these health exchanges can actually work at the local level before they go nationwide.

Wasn’t Pelosi telling people just two weeks ago that she’ll never ever drop the public option from the House bill? Now, suddenly, she’s open to negotiations? The Blue Dogs must be dug in much deeper than I thought after those town halls. As for Clyburn’s “experimental” public option, what incentive do House progressives have to go along with that? If, as seems increasingly likely, the GOP’s going to pick up seats between now and 2013, delaying implementation of the program only makes it easier for Republicans to kill it in the crib later before it goes into full effect. To get liberals to accept it, Pelosi will have to assure them that the “experiment” will be so successful that the GOP will have no choice but to endorse it — while simultaneously assuring Blue Dogs that it won’t be successful and will end up being dropped, thereby making it safe to vote for now. The only certainty: If Clyburn’s plan is adopted, The One’s fortunes in 2012 will depend to no small extent on how well those pilot programs are playing out. Because unless they’re total disasters, you’d better believe he’s going to try to take them national.

All of that is assuming the Senate is willing to act first, of course; as Politico notes, House Democrats aren’t going to risk their necks in passing a bill until they know Reid can get something through. Which, absent reconciliation, he probably can’t. A little mood music for you while you ponder their dilemma.