Democrats Plan Secret Healthcare Talks

Tuesday, 05 Jan 2010 03:35 PM

By John Rossomando

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Barack Obama promised during the presidential campaign that congressional proceedings would be transparent and even carried live on C-SPAN, but the atmosphere of a smoke-filled room surrounds the Democratic leadership’s effort to push healthcare reform legislation through Congress.

Since October, rumors have persisted on Capitol Hill that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid planned to bypass the conference committee process and have the House vote directly on the Senate healthcare bill.

On Oct. 6, CNSNews.com reported that a Reid aide suggested his boss planned to substitute the Senate healthcare bill as a comprehensive amendment to tax legislation the House passed last spring and send it back to the House for a vote. Under that scenario, Republicans still would have had the opportunity to filibuster the motion to move forward on debate.

The most recent reports partly confirm such rumors, with the twist that the various committee chairmen who drafted the original House and Senate versions would resolve their differences among themselves.

This process would involve what insiders describe as a protracted game of pingpong in which the legislation would go back and forth between the two chambers until the bills were identical.

“This process cuts out the Republicans,” a House aide told the Talking Points Memo blog Monday. This process would dodge Republican efforts to file a “motion to recommit” and send the legislation back to committee. It also could undermine the efforts of Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat who opposes abortion, to scuttle the bill if the final version lacks the clear abortion ban he seeks.

David Dayen of FireDogLake, a prominent left-leaning Web site, reported that Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, confirmed rumors that Democrats intend to go around the conference committee process.

Instead, agreements would be packaged in an amendment to the bills the House and Senate passed, Dayen wrote.

Waxman reportedly told constituents that he planned to return to Washington Tuesday to begin negotiations with the Senate and the White House about the final healthcare legislation, although the House does not return to session until Jan. 12.

The pingpong tack also would prevent Senate Republicans from filibustering. Had the Democrats chosen the traditional conference-committee process, Republicans would have had three chances to filibuster procedural motions.

There might be only a single volley in which the House would adopt a revised version of the Senate healthcare bill that passed on Christmas Eve and send it back to the Senate, The New York Times suggested Monday in a story that seemed to confirm the original rumor.

“By blocking out Republicans — not to mention House Democrats who object to what the Senate passed — Pelosi and Reid are setting up a protracted game of 'pingpong,' in which the legislation back and forth from the Senate to the House and back to the Senate again,” Peter Roff wrote in his Thomas Jefferson Street blog on the U.S. News & World Report Web site Monday. “They may be able to prevail as far as the legislation goes, ultimately, but at enormous cost to their majorities.

“And that may be the biggest secret of all as far as the healthcare debate is concerned, or at least the one Pelosi and Reid are most concerned about.”

The secrecy of this process and its contradiction with Obama’s campaign promises have not been lost on C-SPAN CEO Brian Lamb, who sent a letter to House and Senate leaders Dec. 30 requesting that they open negotiations on the final bill for public viewing.

“Since the initial introduction of America’s Affordable Health Care Act of 2009 in the House and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in the Senate, C-SPAN has televised literally hundreds of hours of committee hearings, mark ups and floor debate on these bills for the public to see,” Lamb wrote. “President Obama, Senate and House leaders, many of your rank-and-file members, and the nation’s editorial pages have all talked about the value of transparent discussions on reforming the nation’s health care system.

“Now that the process moves to the critical stage of reconciliation between the Chambers, we respectfully request that you allow the public full access, through television, to legislation that will affect the lives of every single American.”

Congress reportedly hopes to finish work on the legislation before Obama’s State of the Union address in early February. But numerous obstacles remain, including the thorny issues of abortion coverage and the public option.

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