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In a gesture that's likely to bring a smile to Harry Reid's face, many of the country's leading health care economists have signed a letter applauding the Majority Leader, and noting that his manager's amendment to the Senate health care bill, adopted this week, makes the legislation more fiscally sustainable.

And, as an added bonus, it comes just as Republicans are ramping up their critique of the reform package on fiscal responsibility grounds.

You can read the entire letter here.

In an interview today with PBS, President Obama said he plans to begin working on merging the Senate and House health care bills before Congress returns from Christmas recess.

"We hope to have a whole bunch of folks over here in the West Wing, and I'll be rolling up my sleeves and spending some time before the full Congress even gets into session," Obama said, "because the American people need it now."

Obama is expected to work with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to merge the bills.

"I intend to work as hard as I have to work, especially after coming this far over the course of the year, to make sure that we finally close the deal," Obama said.

The House returns Jan. 12, and the Senate returns Jan. 18.

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Despite all the talk about the GOP being on the rise -- and their activist base certainly does seems to be more fired up and ready to go, at this juncture -- a new CNN poll suggests that a key fundamental measurement is still on the Democrats' side: The public at large thinks their policies are good, and also thinks the GOP's policies are bad.

The survey of American adults asked: "Do you think the policies being proposed by the Democratic leaders in the U.S. House and Senate would move the country in the right direction or the wrong direction?" The answer is 51% right direction, 46% wrong direction, with a ±3% margin of error.

The same question asked about the policies being proposed by Republican leaders in the House and Senate: Right direction 42%, wrong direction 53%.

A key internal number is that majorities of independents view both parties' policies as leading in the wrong direction -- 57% for the Dems, 52% for the Republicans.

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President Obama today gave an interview with Jim Lehrer, the host of NewsHour on PBS. Here is the full transcript, as released by NewsHour. Below the transcript is video of the interview:

MR. LEHRER: Mr. President, welcome.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you so much for having me.

MR. LEHRER: So you are completely satisfied with the health-reform bill that the Senate's about to pass?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, I am never completely satisfied. But I am very satisfied. Look, when I made that speech in the joint session of Congress, I set out some criteria for what in my mind would qualify as reform, based on the conversations that I had with families all across the country and the letters that I was receiving about people really going through a tough time in the health-care system.

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As soon as the Senate passes its health care bill tomorrow, members will race to get out of town, and begin a long overdue recess. At some point after they return, though, they'll have to hold...yet more health care votes!

The House and Senate bills will be merged in a negotiating process that will begin shortly after tomorrow's passage, so that each chamber can vote on an identical piece of legislation. Originally, party leaders wanted to wrap things up before President Obama's State of the Union address at the end of January. But right now, some Democrats, including Democrats within the White House, differ on when that final vote will take place.

On the Hill, it's no different.

"We're going to get this done," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), who will partake in neogtiations, "and I predict we'll get it done before the end of January."

"Now a lot of work is going to be done between now and then," Harkin went on.

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Republicans are going fishing for more party-switching House Democrats, the Politico reports -- with the latest target being second-term Pennsylvania Rep. Chris Carney, who received a phone call from Sen. John McCain himself.

Senate Republicans are also reportedly receiving a list of party-switching targets in the House.

"I just said, 'Whatever you do, I know that you'll make right decision for the country,'" said McCain. Carney is also being courted to switch by Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Bill Shuster. Carney was elected in 2006 by a 53%-47%, defeating a scandal-plagued Republican incumbent. He was re-elected by 56%-44% in 2008, at the same time as McCain carried his district by 54%-45%.

If someone were sitting down and making a list of obvious targets in the Democratic caucus that Republicans could court, Carney wouldn't be at the top of it. He voted for the House health care bill this past November, which surely wouldn't endear him to the conservative GOP activist base. However, a House Republican told the site that they'd gotten "a nibble" from Carney, whatever that means. Politico also reports: "A source familiar with the call [with McCain] said that Republicans thought Carney may be susceptible to McCain's entreaty because, like the senator, the 50-year old House member served in the Navy."

A Navy background makes for a Democrat becoming a Republican? How about they try Admiral Joe Sestak next?

Bah humbug?

Everyone knows the health care bill will pass with 60 votes. Weary senators who have worked weekends and late nights for weeks have locked in their support and are ready to say yay or nay.

The official schedule has the Senate bill slated for a final vote at 7 a.m., the first Christmas Eve vote since 1895.

But several senators have said they'd prefer to have it earlier so they could travel to their home states for the holiday.

Today in an example of the arcane Senate procedure, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) attempted to move the vote earlier and Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) objected.

"There's really no reason to hold over the vote," Harkin said.

Vitter disagreed.


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Sens. Harry Reid (D-NV), Max Baucus (D-MT), Chris Dodd (D-CT), and Tom Harkin (D-IA) gave a press conference after a 60-39 Senate cloture vote allowed the final health care reform vote to proceed tomorrow morning. They were excited, to say the least.

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The Senate just cleared its next-to-last procedural hurdle before passing its version of the health care bill.

In a predictable 60-39 vote, senators invoked cloture on final passage of the bill, allowing for a final vote tomorrow morning at 7. Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) is absent.

It's possible they will vote earlier, we're keeping a close eye on those negotiations.

Before calling for the vote on an issue Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) raised about the bill's constitutionality, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Republicans have tried to "obstruct and delay" at every turn.

Republicans parliamentary gambits have slowed down the inevitable passage and tomorrow's vote is the first to be held on Christmas Eve since Dec. 24, 1895.

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Yesterday, the blogosphere was abuzz with a caller to C-Span who was quite alarmed while speaking to Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), wondering if his prayers to strike Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd dead had instead hurt Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, who'd missed a morning procedural vote on Health Care Reform. We've found some evidence that this could have been a prank. And even if the caller is on the level, it might not the first time he's said some pretty weird stuff on a C-Span call-in.

Back in April, a man with a very similar voice, and also from Georgia, called in and asked David Brooks if he, as a sophisticated New Yorker, would help to bring down the black man in the White House. Brooks was laughing in disbelief at what he was hearing.

Both calls had a certain prankish, over-the-top quality to them. The caller to Brooks said he was at the Jekyll Island Club -- a very high-class location in Georgia -- but sounded more like a caricature of an unsophisticated, racist Southerner. The caller to Barrasso referred to his fellow conservative activists as a "tea bag group," a term that many genuine Tea Partiers regard as an offensive epithet. Both callers got worked up emotionally -- energy and ambition in the Brooks caller's case, and urgency and panic from the Barrasso caller.

Are they the same man? Were they serious calls or pranks -- and with the current state of right-wing activism, how can you tell the difference? We here at TPM report, and you folks...well, we wouldn't want to violate any trademarks. But listen to both and tell us what you think.

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