- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Democratic leaders are looking to forgo a formal, public conference to merge the House and Senate’s health care overhaul bills, giving Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the White House free rein to hammer out the final measure behind closed doors and thwart Republican efforts to stymie it.

The maneuver gives Democratic leaders the ability to quickly work through hundreds of differences between the 2,000-page bills and to keep control over the deals they will need to make on politically touchy topics such as abortion, taxes and Medicare cuts.

“A true conference could take longer than it seems leaders in the Senate want to spend on this,” said a Senate Democratic aide.

Democratic aides say the final decision hasn’t been made, but the party’s congressional leaders will talk with the president this week. Democrats are pursuing a final vote in both chambers on the president’s top agenda item in time for his first State of the Union address later this month.

An informal conference is likely to reinforce claims that Democrats haven’t upheld Mr. Obama’s campaign pledge to keep the health care reform process transparent — complete with C-SPAN cameras.

“Harry Reid’s continued efforts to throw transparency out the window and shut out the American people on a bill that will affect one-sixth of America’s economy is an outrage,” said Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “It’s clear his past statements about supporting transparency were nothing but lip service by a professional politician who has lost touch with the voters who sent him to Washington.”

Lawmakers from the House and Senate typically host formal, public sessions to iron out differences in their legislation before voting and then sending them to the White House for the president’s signature, though they often are merely blessing deals already made behind closed doors.

Although both chambers have passed their respective health care reform bills, the merging process still poses a significant hurdle. The House passed its bill with just a five-vote margin and the Senate passed its bill with no votes to spare, leaving little room for either side to give up important provisions.

The bills have numerous differences, but the most divisive are likely to be the public option and abortion. The House’s legislation would enact a public insurance plan and severely restrict access to abortion coverage, while the Senate’s bill would not have a public option and not impose as strict abortion provisions.

The Senate’s bill includes a handful of highly targeted provisions that critics say were meant to “buy” votes from wavering lawmakers. The most high profile among them — a plan for the federal government to pay Nebraska’s share of its Medicaid costs — already has a bull’s-eye on it.

Establishing a formal conference requires multiple votes, such as whom to elect as conference attendees, that would take time and give Republicans a chance to filibuster.

Democrats hope to limit the number of votes held by either chamber by going through the informal process, which is infrequently used but not rare. The informal group likely would include White House officials and only a handful of top lawmakers in the House and Senate.

Senior Democrats said last month that they hope to have a final bill on the president’s desk in time for the State of the Union address. But many of the Democrats’ deadlines on the health care reform bill have come and gone.

The move toward an informal process likely would eliminate any chance of Republican support in the Senate.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, the only Republican who voted for the Democrats’ bill in committee, said last month that she hasn’t ruled out voting for the conference report, but also said she would like to have had a chance to change the bill through amendments in the Senate.

Only one Republican — Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao of Louisiana — voted for the bill on final passage.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

• Jennifer Haberkorn can be reached at jhaberkorn@washingtontimes.com.old.

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