In no small part, Democrats' openness to compromise springs from their experiences back home during the August recess.
One clear lesson was that people on all sides of the issue feel passionately about it. Long after cable news coverage waned, lawmakers drew huge, often rowdy audiences.
Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) held a conference call on healthcare for constituents and an hour into it, 2,000 people were still listening. Rep. Baron P. Hill (D-Ind.) was engulfed in thunderous cheers and boos at a basketball arena. A fistfight broke out at an event held by Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.).
On Tuesday, lawmakers will get down to business in the Capitol: Party leaders will be meeting with the rank and file behind closed doors to decide on strategy. A bipartisan group of six Senate Finance Committee members who have been seeking a compromise will hold another meeting in advance of their self-imposed Sept. 15 deadline for reaching a deal.
And Obama will meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Even with the economy in trouble and Afghanistan rising as a source of public concern, healthcare will dominate the Washington agenda for weeks and months to come.
But the pivot point could be Obama's speech Wednesday -- a politically risky use of his bully pulpit to prod Congress and change his role in the debate. It will probably dictate the timetable and trajectory of legislative action on Capitol Hill, where House Democratic leaders are hoping to bring the legislation to the floor in a month and the Senate awaits action by the powerful finance committee.
"This speech represents his last best chance to grab hold of the debate," said William A. Galston, a political analyst who was a domestic policy advisor to Clinton. "A speech that fails to provide a specific blueprint for the legislative endgame would be political malpractice of a high order."
Tom Hamburger and Peter Nicholas in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.