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Healthcare reform tussle, seen through the lens of Constitution Day

How the various branches of government are adhering to America's founding document.

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If this year's Constitution Day needs a poster child, perhaps it's the healthcare reform effort under way in Washington.

America's founding document set up the balance of powers among branches of government – and the process of devising healthcare legislation, which has grabbed the attention of many citizens, provides a lens through which to examine their actions thus far.

Here's a quick summation of their roles:

The executive branch. This comes second (after Congress) in the Constitution, but it has become the norm for the president to play a leading role when major legislation is at stake. On healthcare, Congress is working the issue partly because the White House has decided that "Now is the time to deliver on healthcare," as President Obama put it this month. After first coaxing lawmakers to craft bills, and seeing momentum stall, Mr. Obama in a Sept. 9 speech sought to take a stronger role in shaping the reforms.

The legislative branch. Much as Obama might wish for fellow Democrats in Congress to coalesce around his ideas, this first branch of the US government is its own animal. And kind of a Pushmi-pullyu at that. The Founding Fathers set up checks and balances not only among the various branches, but also within the legislative branch. For any bill to pass, it will have to navigate the very different political and procedural dynamics of the House and Senate. The Senate could hold the key on healthcare, since it is more narrowly under Democratic control than the House. That explains why the news this week is dominated by something called the "Baucus plan," not the Obama plan. The clout of Sen. Max Baucus (D) comes not from a massive voting bloc in his home state (Montana has less than a million people) but from the time-honored system of committees and legislative dealmaking. Senator Baucus's framework won't be the last word, but it's getting more than 15 minutes of fame.

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