House Democrats on Wednesday said they're closing in on a final health care overhaul bill that merges the House and Senate plans but they don't yet know how or when they're going to pass it.
They also won't disclose how it deals with flash points that helped stall the effort, such as how to prevent taxpayer funding of abortions, whether to include a public insurance option and how to pay for it.
"The House and Senate have come very close to reaching a final agreement, in coordination with the White House," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The White House is expected to release its own health reform proposal ahead of President Obama's bipartisan health reform summit with congressional leaders, planned for Feb. 25. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs revealed scant details of the plan this week but told reporters to "stay tuned."
Democrats are still divided on how to proceed policywise. The House and Senate plans have different ways to pay for the bill - the House plan would tax wealthy Americans, and the Senate plan would tax high-cost insurance plans, for instance. The bills also have different ways of treating abortion in an attempt to prevent taxpayer funding of the controversial procedure.
Republicans, however, have remained steadfast in their opposition to the Democrats' health reform plans. They are skeptical that the bipartisan health summit will be a real negotiation.
"A productive bipartisan discussion should begin with a clean sheet of paper," Minority Leader John A. Boehner said this week. "We now know that instead of starting the 'bipartisan' health care 'summit' on Feb. 25 with a clean sheet of paper, the president and his party intend to arrive with a new bill written behind closed doors exclusively by Democrats - a backroom deal that will transform one-sixth of our nation's economy and affect every family and small business in America. ... It doesn't sound much like bipartisanship to me."
Once Democrats come up with a merged plan, it's unclear how it would pass. Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown's surprise victory last month gave Republicans enough votes to filibuster the bill in the Senate.
One scenario that has serious backing is the House passes the Senate's bill and then both chambers pass another bill to "fix" what they didn't like in the Senate plan - such as the federal government paying for Nebraska's Medicaid tab. The "fix" would have to pass the Senate through reconciliation, a complicated procedural tool that needs just 51 votes. But even that plan has been met with some resistance from House leaders.
Senate Democrats, for their part, seem to have growing support for reconciliation. Five new Democrats and one independent signed on to a letter Wednesday asking Majority Leader Harry Reid to pass a public insurance plan through reconciliation. Four other Democrats sent the letter earlier this week.
In a conference call with reporters, the House Democrats stressed that the process will work itself out.
"The process is less important than the substance of what it is that we are able to pass in order to allow the American people to get the kind of relief they need with health care reform," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut Democrat. "Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, if you do not understand that, you will pay a heavy price at the next election."
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