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Tony Fratto: Only the End of the Beginning on Health Care


After months of delays, false starts, and missed deadlines, months after the storied town hall meetings and long-ago deals with the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, you'd think the Senate Finance Committee's expected vote tomorrow on Chairman Max Baucus'shealth reform bill would at least be...consequential?

It isn't.

If the Senate Finance Committee passes a bill tomorrow, no less than five health reform bills will be on the menu.

Healthy Horizons -- A Special Report
Healthy Horizons -- A Special Report

In each house of Congress, legislation faces floor debate and amendment and new rounds of budget scoring. Senate Democrats will take the Baucus bill into a closed room and write a new bill, and it's anyone's guess what will emerge.

So despite the White House proclaiming that we're approaching the end, we're still at the beginning - with nothing ruled in or out - and an outcome as murky as ever.

Is it any wonder then that most Americans remain confused and skeptical about what Washington has in store for them?

President Obama, in his weekly radio address Saturday proclaimed "the final days of debate" and hailed what can only be described as a hoped-for consensus:

"In fact, what's remarkable is not that we've had a spirited debate about health insurance reform, but the unprecedented consensus that has come together behind it."

With five different bills and hundreds of expected amendments, and confused citizens, the questions remain: "Consensus on what, exactly? What is the 'it' the White House says has achieved such 'unprecedented consensus'?"

Among the five bills does the White House have a preference? Will the president lead or follow the liberal push for a so-called public option? Where will the White House throw its weight on individual amendments and in closed-door meetings to reconcile legislation? Will legislation not add "a single dime" to the deficit without gimmicks, like the "doc fix" trick in the Baucus bill?

This is the problem with a White House that has decided that "it" is, quite simply, anything Congress can pass.

Buckle up for a more intense, but a yet long and bumpy ride. We're a long way from the end; we're only at the end of the beginning.

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Tony Fratto is a CNBC on-air contributor and most recently served as Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Press Secretary for the Bush Administration.