House and Senate Democrats intend to bypass traditional procedures when they negotiate a final compromise on health care legislation, officials said Monday, a move that will exclude Republican lawmakers and reduce their ability to delay or force politically troubling votes in both houses.
The unofficial timetable calls for final passage of the measure to remake the nation's health care system by the time President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address, probably in early February.
Democratic aides said the final compromise talks would essentially be a three-way negotiation involving top Democrats in the House and Senate and the White House, a structure that gives unusual latitude to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.
These officials said there are no plans to appoint a formal House-Senate conference committee, the method Congress most often uses to reconcile differing bills. Under that customary format, a committee chairman is appointed to preside, and other senior lawmakers from both parties and houses participate in typically perfunctory public meetings while the meaningful negotiations occur behind closed doors.
In this case, the plan is to skip the formal meetings, reach an agreement, then have the two houses vote as quickly as possible. A 60-vote Senate majority would be required in advance of final passage.
"I look forward to working with members of the House, the Senate and President Obama to reconcile our bills and send the final legislation to the president's desk as soon as possible," Pelosi said late last year as the Senate approved its version of the legislation.
"We hope to get a bill done as soon as possible," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid.
The issue is so partisan that only one Republican, Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao of Louisiana, has cast a vote in favor of the legislation.
GOP leaders have vowed to try and block a final bill from reaching Obama's desk. "This fight isn't over. My colleagues and I will work to stop this bill from becoming law," Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Republican leader, said shortly before the Senate cleared its version of the bill last month.
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 literally hundreds of differences between the two bills, a House measure that ran to 1,990 pages and a Senate version of 2,074, not counting 383 pages of last-minute changes. The biggest differences involve 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.
Bypassing a formal conference committee enables Democrats to omit time-consuming procedural steps in the Senate and prevents Republicans from trying to delay the final negotiations.
Under Senate rules, three separate votes are required before negotiators for the two houses may hold a formal meeting. While the three normally are agreed to within seconds, each may be filibustered, and Democrats would then have to produce 60 votes to cut off debate.
Additionally, Republicans would have the right to demand votes on nonbinding proposals once negotiators for the two houses were appointed. That could, in turn, require Democrats to vote on political controversies such as wiping out the legislation's proposed cuts in Medicare, the type of issue that could easily be turned into attack ads in next fall's campaign.
Congress plans no formal sessions until Jan. 19, but Pelosi intends to meet this week with key committee chairmen and other leaders, and a separate meeting is also planned for members of the rank and file.
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