President Barack Obama and congressional leaders are embarking on the tough work of ironing out differences between the House and Senate health care legislation with the aim of finalizing a bill quickly as midterm elections loom.
Both houses have already passed legislation to remake the health care system, extending coverage to millions who lack it while cracking down on industry practices such as denying insurance on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions.
There are numerous differences between the two bills, include provisions on illegal immigration and abortion, a dispute over a government-run insurance option — the House wants one, but the Senate bill omitted it — as well as the size and extent of federal subsidies to help lower-income families afford coverage.
The president planned to begin work with congressional leaders Tuesday to resolve those and other thorny issues. Obama was to meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer in the Oval Office Tuesday evening, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin joining the meeting by phone.
Earlier Tuesday, Pelosi, Hoyer and key committee chairmen planned to meet to discuss their priorities for the final legislation.
In a posting Tuesday on the White House blog, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer wrote that there is "an unavoidable temptation among the media to focus on the five percent of differences between the two versions, instead of the remarkable 95 percent the bills have in common. But, even as difficult work does remain, it is important not to lose perspective of how far we have come and how close we are to enacting health reform."
The aim is to finish up by early next month, hopefully before Obama delivers his State of the Union address, though the date for that has not been set.
To that end congressional leaders plan to dispense with the formal process of appointing a conference committee to work out the differences in the bill. Instead top House and Senate Democrats and White House officials will aim to reach agreement among themselves, then have the two houses vote as quickly as possible. A 60-vote Senate majority would be required in advance of final passage.
The format is drawing criticism from Republicans who contend Democrats are operating in secret. "My Republican colleagues and the American people have been largely shut out of the health care reform proceedings thus far, as Democrat leaders packaged their health care bills behind closed doors and layered them with billions of dollars in sweetheart deals to woo undecided Democrats," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Tuesday.
As a candidate, Obama pledged during a presidential debate in January 2008 that he would be "bringing all parties together, and broadcasting those negotiations on C-SPAN so that the American people can see what the choices are."
That has not occurred, and even C-SPAN is taking note. The network released a letter Tuesday from chief executive Brian Lamb to congressional leaders asking for the talks to be opened to cameras.
"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," Lamb wrote in the Dec. 30 letter. "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."
Spokesmen for Pelosi and Reid had no immediate comment.
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