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Wishful Thinking From Schumer?

Now that Obama’s Big Speech is over, the focus of the health care debate has moved swiftly back to the Senate Finance Committee, as it prepares to release its own bill next week. At a press conference on Capitol Hill today, the Senate Democratic leadership stood before a bold blue sign with their newly minted slogan: “The Season for Action Is Now.” It's a variation on a line from Obama’s speech, “Now is the season for action.”

The question now is where that action should take place--and what kind of action should be. The proposal Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus has put out--the one on which next week's formal proposal will be based--comes out of his efforts to negotiate a package with the bipartisan "Group of Six." But it seems likely that one, if not two, of the gang's republicans--Mike Enzi and Charles Grassley--won't sign on. And that has a key Democrat on the committee, Charles Schumer, thinking it's time to reexamine some of the compromises Baucus made and, perhaps, pull the bill back to the left a bit. "[Baucus'] initial goal was to get the three [Republicans] to go with him, which made him move in ways that he might not want to move if his goal is to unify the democrats on the committee and maybe get just one republican," Schumer told me, shortly after today's press conference.

For Schumer, the timing is key. Speaking with Tim Fernholz earlier this week, he warned that liberals hoping to improve Baucus' proposal can't afford to wait until both chambers pass measures and it goes to conference committee. “When House and Senate pass bills … you’re not going to end up with something totally different in the conference,” he said. “You can change things but it’s not going to deviate that far from either bill.”

But how much can Schumer and his allies really shape the bill in committee? The administration has hinted that it wants a deal with Maine Senator Olympia Snowe--the republican in the gang still negotiating in good faith. And in last night's speech, Obama sketched out a vision that looks remarkably like Baucus's. Ezra flags a few areas of dispute where such finagling could still be possible--such as increasing subsidies for low-income folks, an issue where Snowe is open to negotiation. But Snowe has also said she wants the bill to come down in price--maybe to around $800 billion--which suggests it won't be easy to make it more generous. And losing Snowe means more than losing what looks like reform's lone Republican supporter. It probably means losing some centrist Democrats, since they're wary of supporting a bill without at least some bipartisan cover.