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On Health Care, Now Comes the Really Hard Part

It was his umpteenth health care deadline and the Senate finally helped President Obama avoid a big lump of coal in his legislative Christmas stocking.

It took until the morning of Christmas eve - on the 339th day of his presidency - for him to finally get health care bills out of both chambers of Congress.

He had hoped this process would have been completed over the summer, but the calendar takes a backseat to his determination to see his top domestic agenda item enacted into law early in the new year.

But now comes the really hard part. He's got to push the House and Senate to reconcile the difference between their separate measures

"I'll be rolling up my sleeves," said the president last evening of his intention to be personally engaged in helping the both chambers reach a compromise bill that each will pass. Special Report: Health Care

Having been burned by deadlines in the past, the White House is careful not to set another, though there are two target dates next month by which Mr. Obama would like to sign a health care bill into law:

• January 20th – the start of his 2nd year in office

• Or a week later when he plans to deliver his first State of the Union Address.

To hear the president tell it, it shouldn't be that difficult to get a compromise bill to his desk.

"What's interesting is, the House version and the Senate version are almost identical," he told Jim Lehrer last evening on the PBS Newshour.

There are plenty of similarities, but "almost identical" requires a degree of wishful thinking.

The House bill provides for a "public option" government-run health care coverage. Not the Senate measure. There are significant differences in who and what get taxed in order paying for implementing the health care plan. And the two chambers set different standards on the degree to which abortions are covered by health insurance. In the House version, not at all, but the door is open a crack in the Senate plan. (Read more on the differences between the bills>)

If a compromise bill changes any of those provisions, it could significantly alter congressional support for the bill and even block final passage.

It's clear that what Mr. Obama has termed as a "grueling process" to reach this point in the health care battle, is far from over.

But he believes he's brought the process further along that any president before him. And he portrays himself as newly invigorated to push or drag a final measure across the finish line – regardless of the date.

More on Health Care:

Obama on Health Care: Our Challenge Is to Finish the Job
Chris Dodd: We Will Get This Done
Harry Reid Says "Nay" Before "Yea" During Vote
Republicans Compare Democrats to Ebenezer Scrooge
Senate, House Seek Health Care Compromise
When Health Care Changes Could Take Effect
How Filibusters Are Strangling the Senate
Abortion Still Threatens Health Care Bill
A Legal Challenge to Nelson's Health Deal?
Senate's Deal: Compromise or Corruption?
Comparison of Senate, House Health Care Bills

Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter here:
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