I knew that Politico story was too good to be true. The face of bipartisanship:

Senior White House officials, in conversations with reporters today, are floating the idea that President Obama is secretly negotiating with Sen. Olympia Snowe over a health care compromise that would phase in a government-funded health care alternative if private insurance companies fail to meet quality and cost benchmarks over a certain period of the time. The public discussion of the Snowe “compromise” is meant to test the reaction of House Democrats, who will pass a bill that includes an immediate public option added to a new health insurance exchange. The White House hopes that, having voted for a public option, House Dems would accept a “trigger” as part of a conference committee compromise rather than putting the kibosh on the entire health care reform project. In some ways, this strategy is old, and in some ways it’s new. For months, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel has been pushing the idea of a “trigger” internally, and he and Snowe regularly trade legislative and political intelligence.

This is the flip side of Clyburn’s plan in the House to run a government program on a trial basis in a few states, to be followed by national implementation in 2013 if it’s successful. There, the burden’s on the feds to perform; in Snowe’s version, the burden’s on insurance companies to meet some arbitrary federal benchmark. You can see why that would appeal to Democrats looking for a way to get a foothold for the public option but why it would appeal to a self-professed fiscal conservative like Snowe, knowing how grievously a public option could end up distorting the market, is beyond me. Maybe the idea is to marry her plan and Clyburn’s and have both the private and public sides of the program prove that they’re viable?

As for The One’s sudden turnaround on whether a public option will be in the bill, it’s really not so sudden. I explained on Monday night why I thought pushing for it was his best available move politically, but if he failed to see that before, House progressives are making sure he sees it today:

Jacob Hacker, a health policy expert who can be called the godfather of the public option, says, “The White House…has to be told in no uncertain terms that dropping the public plan is stupid and premature.”

The Politico piece did not quote by name President Barack Obama or his senior advisers saying they were dumping the public option from their must-include list. So it’s possible this was a trial balloon that could burst. But even though Obama had already declined to vow he would go to the mat for a public option, the story did rile up progressives on and off Capitol Hill.

“Without a public option, this bill will do a lot of nice things but only by throwing a couple hundred billion dollars at insurance companies,” says Nadler, adding that a public option is necessary to hold down the cost of health insurance. “What is the point of passing a bill that mandates people to buy insurance that is going to be unaffordable?” he says…

Though a public option can likely make it through the House without much assistance from Obama, Nadler notes points out that no such bill could succeed in the Senate absent pressure from Obama. If Obama doesn’t make an effort, Nadler says, “I believe it will cause a very big split” in the Democratic Party.

I guess the deal with Snowe is his “effort.” Exit question: Is the trigger enough to win over the conservative Democrats holding out in the Senate too or is this geared directly at earning Snowe’s vote to provide the tiniest possible fig leaf of bipartisanship?