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Another Day, Another Deadline Missed

House and Senate committees are about to miss a Thursday deadline for writing a fast-tracked health care bill, but Democrats aren’t sweating it.

The reconciliation rules, which get around the threat of a Senate filibuster, include an Oct. 15 deadline for committees to report bills to the Budget Committee. The five key panels have all reported out regular health care bills, but only one House committee so far has produced a reconciliation bill.

But it turns out that deadline doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot, budget experts say. In the House, the Rules Committee can fill in the blanks of the legislation later. The Senate can also still go the reconciliation route, although the process is a bit murkier.

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who has angered some liberals by proposing nonprofit health insurance cooperatives, dismissed as unimportant the Oct. 15 date. It “is a date that does not have legislative consequences,— he said last week. “You can do reconciliation before Oct. 15. You can do reconciliation after Oct. 15.—

Conrad opposes the use of reconciliation for health care reform — warning repeatedly that its arcane rules on what can be included would make the health care bill look like Swiss cheese — but nevertheless said he is not ruling it out.

Bill Hoagland, a former budget aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) now working with the insurance giant CIGNA, also said Oct. 15 doesn’t matter much. Hoagland said Democratic leaders could always go back to the committees and tell them to report a bill despite the deadline. The Senate Parliamentarian isn’t likely to object, provided the Budget Committee reports it out and it meets the requirement for cutting the deficit by at least $1 billion over five years, Hoagland said.

“To be honest about it, I think they could go up until early spring next year until the next budget resolution and still trigger reconciliation,— Hoagland said.

James Horney, a budget expert at the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said there is precedent for letting committees report instructions after the deadline without a problem.

“There are clear precedents,— he said.

In the past, at least one committee has reported out a reconciliation bill before going to the floor, however, Horney said.

Hoagland said he expects leadership will first try to bring the Senate Finance Committee bill to the floor and then allow amendments. If Republicans filibuster an amendment adding a public insurance option and other elements of the more liberal Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee bill, the measure could be tied into knots and leadership may then decide to use reconciliation.

But Democrats aren’t keen on discussing that fallback.

“The only thing we are working on right now is putting together a bill that can get 60 votes to get out of the Senate,— a Democratic leadership aide said.

“Health reform is moving ahead pretty well now, so our focus is to keep that moving,— said Kate Cyrul, spokeswoman for HELP Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

Democrats are also keen not to anger their sole GOP ally, Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), and Republicans have threatened to retaliate if Democrats go that route.

In the House, Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) is expected to skip a vote on reporting reconciliation instructions altogether. The liberal Californian faces enough opposition to the approach from fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats on his panel that he has opted against putting it to the test, sources familiar with the situation said.

So far, only one of three House committees that handled the health care overhaul — the Education and Labor Committee — has sent the House Budget Committee its reconciliation instructions. Ways and Means is expected to follow suit this week, in time to meet the Thursday deadline.

Procedural experts said if Waxman’s panel takes a pass, the House Rules Committee could clear the way for simply adding his committee’s piece of the reconciliation package on the floor.

That approach, though unorthodox, would be unlikely to endanger prospects for reconciliation in the Senate.

“Reconciliation is not an issue in the House. They have the Rules Committee,— Conrad said. “Reconciliation is really designed for the purposes of Senate action.—

Similarly, Senate Budget ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said, “Optically, it might be [a problem], but reconciliation is a Senate exercise for all practical purposes.—

It would, however, hand Republicans a ready-made messaging point against a process they have already blasted as heavy-handed. “Anything as big and important as overhauling our nation’s health care system should not be done in a partisan way, and using the ‘reconciliation’ process to jam through a bill the American people don’t support would be a huge mistake,— said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “But it’s telling that House Democrats are unable to get ‘reconciliation’ instructions through the Energy and Commerce Committee,— Steel added in an e-mail. “Clearly, even some Democrats have concerns about using a procedural dodge to enact a trillion-dollar government takeover of health care.—

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.

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