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Correction to This Article
The story initially stated that Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has "sparked a liberal backlash by tweaking certain provisions to satisfy moderate Republicans, along with the three Republicans helping to draft his bill." However, Baucus has triggered such backlash by revising provisions "to satisfy moderate Democrats, along with the three Republicans helping to draft his bill."

Obama Adds Momentum to Health-Care Reform Effort in Congress

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Congressmen on Capitol Hill discuss Obama's major address on health care immediately following the speech Wednesday night. Video by Ben Pershing/The Washington Post

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By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 10, 2009

President Obama's speech Wednesday night gave the health-care debate a much-needed shot of momentum, but the direct appeal won't erase the rancor of recent months, both within the Democratic Party and among Republicans.

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The contrast was starkly apparent on the House floor last night, when some House Republicans shouted catcalls as Obama spoke, while others -- a small group of GOP senators -- nodded and applauded almost as frequently as Democrats. Liberals sat silently when Obama cited "constructive ideas" that could take the place of a government insurance plan, but cheered wildly when he vowed to hold insurance companies "accountable."

Hours before Obama's address, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) -- whose panel had been the laggard on reform -- announced a start date for debate on his panel's bill. House leaders prepared to enter final negotiations on their own legislation, and even Republicans are conceding that doing nothing is not an option.

As Congress proceeds, the template Obama provided will help to guide Democratic leaders through the minefield that lies ahead. The president even widened the cast of potential supporters by endorsing provisions that are popular among Republicans, including pilot programs to test whether medical malpractice reform could lower health-care costs and an expansion of special risk pools that allow people with preexisting conditions to buy insurance.

With Obama fully engaged, Democrats were newly confident they could deliver a bill by the end of the year.

"As the president said tonight, 'Now is the season for action,' " said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.).

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) called the speech "just what the doctor ordered" to finish a bill.

And yet the road to a White House signing ceremony remains difficult terrain. In both the House and Senate, Democratic leaders must combine several bills, factoring in Obama's priorities but also the proclivities of internal factions. The middle road is usually the path of least resistance, especially in the Senate -- but already Baucus, the only Democratic chairman seeking to forge a bipartisan consensus, has sparked a liberal backlash by tweaking certain provisions to satisfy moderate Democrats, along with the three Republicans helping to draft his bill.

In the Senate, the spotlight will remain on the Finance Committee as Baucus prepares to release a bill next week in advance of a formal debate now set to begin the week of Sept. 21. If Baucus can't produce, Democratic leaders will be forced to contemplate procedural maneuvers to bring reform legislation to the floor on a party-line vote. But if the Finance process unfolds smoothly, the committee would approve the legislation -- with or without Republican support -- by the end of the month.

At that point, Reid would take over, melding the Finance bill with the legislation produced by the Senate health committee and bringing the massive package to the Senate floor for debate. Senators would then have the opportunity to test support for controversial ideas such as the public option, malpractice protections and an individual insurance mandate.

"On the Senate floor, there will be opportunities to offer all kinds of amendments," Reid told reporters before the speech. If the bill that emerges from the two committees includes a public option, "there will be an opportunity to take it out. If there isn't one in there, there will be an opportunity to put it in."

Because the House has more authoritarian rules than the Senate, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) can reshape the pending House bill with input from a dozen or more key lawmakers, including those from competing ideological caucuses.


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