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Road Map: Beyond Health Care, Fall Agenda Is Crowded

Time flies when you’re getting screamed at by constituents and organized protesters over your party’s plans for health care reform.

Still, intrepid Members of Congress return to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to start another long legislative slog in which health care will color everything else they try to do from now until a likely December adjournment date.

Now that Democrats have had the entire August recess to ruminate on their public relations failures and suffer a few new ones — “death panels,” anyone? — the party is gearing up for what it hopes will be a defining speech by President Barack Obama before a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night.

With Obama set to outline more details and with the White House hinting that he’s willing to drastically scale back his original goals for health care legislation, Democrats say they are waiting with bated breath for Obama to rescue the troubled Congressional effort.

“I think everybody is sort of on pause and letting the president have the floor,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide.

Once the president speaks, Senate Democrats said they are apt to try to adhere as closely as possible to the president’s outline for health care.

“At this point, we are ready to follow the leader,” the senior Senate Democratic aide said.

That feeling pretty much sums up where Democrats are, given most assume that bipartisan talks in the Senate Finance Committee are doomed to fail. The time-consuming negotiations between three Finance Democrats and three Republicans appeared to buckle in August as key GOP negotiators — Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions ranking member Mike Enzi (Wyo.) — made several statements in which they appeared to back away from their roles in the talks. Last week, their spokesmen attempted to swat away rumors that the two are close to walking away from the table. The six met by teleconference Friday and plan to meet in person again Tuesday.

But the White House doesn’t seem to believe that Grassley and Enzi are in it to win it and last week began making public overtures to Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) — the third GOP Finance negotiator — about accepting her proposal to create a trigger for any public insurance option. Under that scenario, a public plan would only be created if private insurers could not find a way to cut costs and increase coverage.

All the efforts, at this point, appear focused on finding the 60 votes needed to beat back a near-certain GOP filibuster. With Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) death two weeks ago, Senate Democrats are only 59 Members strong, but they may not be able to count on a handful of their own centrists — for example, Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mary Landrieu (La.) and Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) — to vote for a health care package. That reality has made courting Snowe as well as her home-state colleague, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), even more important.

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