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Democrats Look to Scrap Conference to Ease Passage of Health Care Bill

Congressional Democrats are looking to minimize the GOP’s opportunities to trip up health care reform legislation by scrapping a formal conference committee and settling their differences informally among themselves.

Rather than convening a conference committee, Democrats will look to “pingpong— the legislation between the two chambers — a regular practice for Democrats on major bills. The move would allow them to avoid tough political votes thrown up by Republicans as well as further delays on the Senate floor.

And even as Democrats sidestep a formal conference, leaders in both chambers still have to hammer out a final deal behind closed doors that can garner a majority vote in the House and overcome a 60-vote hurdle in the Senate. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will take the temperature of her Members on Thursday during a full Caucus meeting that some Members may attend by phone.

Senate aides acknowledged that the decision to bypass conference is largely to avoid holding several time-consuming procedural votes that would be needed to defeat a near-certain GOP attempt to filibuster the naming of conferees. Without a formal conference, Democrats in both chambers will also be able to prevent Republicans from offering politically tricky motions to instruct conferees. Such motions are not binding, but they can hold symbolic and political significance in policy fights between the House and Senate.

Going to conference, one senior Senate Democratic aide explained, would just erect “procedural hoops that would just be a forum for the Republicans.—

The aide said Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) could meet in person as soon as next week. House leadership plans to meet at 1 p.m. Tuesday to discuss the health care bill with committee chairmen.

Republicans have noted that Democrats have avoided conferences with regularity in order to avoid conference committees. Among the advantages for Democrats in the House is that the process usually prevents the minority from offering an alternative through a motion to recommit. Additionally, House rules that prohibit earmarks from being airdropped into conference reports would not apply.

“It’s a way around every transparency mechanism in the rules,— said Jo Maney, spokeswoman for Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), the ranking member on the Rules Committee. Maney said the Democratic plans to pingpong the bill break President Barack Obama’s promise for negotiations to be televised on C-SPAN and Democrats’ repeated pledges from when they were in the minority to return to power to avoid heavy-handed tactics.

“If they had the votes to do it the right way, they would do it,— Maney said. “But they have to play games, specifically pingpong.—

A House Democratic leadership aide, who neither confirmed nor denied whether a conference committee would be convened, said that if the bill does not proceed through a formal conference, leaders still plan to have the measure available for Members’ review 72 hours before any vote. Democrats are hoping to have a bill completed by February, after Obama delivers his State of the Union address.

The aide also dismissed Republican complaints about the potential lack of a conference committee. “Republicans have clearly demonstrated that they have no interest in participating in health insurance reform,— the aide said.

Given the arm-twisting and deal-making that characterized the Senate’s eventual Christmas Eve passage of its bill, Senate aides said much of the capitulation on a unified health care bill would need to come from the House.

For example, aides said House liberals would likely have to give up on having a public insurance option, which proved a nonstarter in the Senate.

But negotiations are expected to be intense over whether to tax high-cost, or “Cadillac,— insurance plans as well as over how much the federal government should subsidize lower-income people who are trying to meet the bill’s mandate for health insurance coverage. The Senate measure taxes those Cadillac plans, while the House plan does not, and the Senate included less generous subsidies than the House. One key area of wiggle room: about $30 billion in spending can be added to the Senate bill in conference without running afoul of Obama’s goal of keeping the measure under $900 billion.

One key compromise could come on the Senate bill’s reliance on a network of federally sponsored, but state-based, insurance exchanges. The senior Senate Democratic aide said a national exchange included in the House bill is not necessarily off the table for Senate leaders. The insurance exchanges in the Senate bill were included as a mechanism to help bring health insurance costs down, just as House leaders had hoped their plan for a public option would do.

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