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60 v. 61?

There’s a lot of confusing goings-on in PublicOptionLand today, which I’m not particularly going to try to unpack — check out Ezra Klein for the most coherent attempt to summarize the situation. But one narrative I’m seeing pretty commonly is that the White House is willing to make too many sacrifices — for instance, giving up on an opt-out public option in exchange for a trigger — in order to secure Olympia Snowe’s vote and be able to call the health care bill “bipartisan”.

I don’t doubt that the White House perceives real political value in having a health care bill that has at least one Republican on board. Whether the trade-offs they’re willing to make are “worth it” or not, I don’t know. Nor do I doubt that, from the very beginnings of the process, the policy wing of the White House has been somewhat neutered on the public option (to put it generously).

But I don’t think this is the crux of the issue — I don’t think the White House’s position is primarily dictated by a desire for 61 votes on a motion to proceed with the health care bill as opposed to exactly 60. Rather, I suspect they don’t perceive exactly 60 votes — meaning, something strictly along party lines — as being in the cards.

From a policy standpoint, Olympia Snowe is arguably to the left of at least two or three Democratic senators — Evan Bayh, Ben Nelson, Mary Landireu — on health care. From a politics standpoint, she probably has more to lose than a Nelson or a Landrieu by opposing the bill, since health care reform is more popular in her state than in Nebraska or Louisiana.

Now, a motion to proceed is not a policy vote — it’s a procedural one. And there’s certainly a case that Snowe, being a Republican, is intrinsically less easy to whip than a Nelson or a Bayh or a Landrieu on a process issue.

Nevertheless, all of this isn’t happening in isolation. Snowe is meeting with Nelson and Bayh and Landrieu and Max Baucus. That group of a half-dozen or so Senators — maybe throw Susan Collins, Joe Lieberman, Blanche Lincoln in here too — is liable to vote as a block. It’s probably not a completely impenetrable block — Politico is breathlessly reporting that Landrieu and Lieberman, for instance, may have been won over — but it seems like an uphill climb for Harry Reid to pick off all other members of the block but not Olympia Snowe. Bayh and Nelson, in particular, appear to be problems. By the way, it may be significant that both Bayh and Nelson are the potential holdouts. If Reid can get down to the point where there’s exactly one Democratic opposing the bill, that Democrat will be under a tremendous amount of pressure since he can no longer deflect responsibility.

This is not to say that Reid should stop trying to whip votes. The situation is obviously very fluid, and given the reliance on anonymous sourcing in virtually all of the reporting on the issue, there’s a lot that we don’t know.

I’m just saying, however, that to castigate the White House for being willing to indefensible sacrifices to the altar of bipartianship is premature. They may not be worried about 61 versus 60 so much as 61 versus 58.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.