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Dems Will Bypass Conference Committee To Get Health Care Passed

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Both chambers of Congress will skip a formal "conference committee" and instead negotiate informally on their respective health care bills, confirm Congressional aides and sources outside of government.

In what one health care reform activist calls a "quasi ping-pong" strategy, House and Senate leaders will each have a set of negotiators bounce variations of health care legislation back and forth until the disagreements between the two chambers are hammered out.

"Absent a stunning turn of events, it's true," said one Senate aide. "All of the motions that we need to go into conference with the House are amendable and debatable."

The basis for negotiations will be the Senate bill (which lacks a public option for insurance coverage and contains a tax on expensive health care plans), to which the House can add amendments.

"It doesn't preclude us from making major changes," explained one House Democratic aide. "We would basically be voting on the 'amendment'. But the amendment wouldn't be a two-page bill. It could be the entire bill itself." The House will hold a caucus meeting this week (with out-of-town members calling in over the phone) to begin discussing priorities for these negotiations.

The decision to skip formal conference negotiations -- which was first reported by The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn -- is not, it should be noted, the rarest of parliamentary maneuvers. Hill aides say it often happens with major or contentious pieces of legislation (though not apparently in this current Congress). "This is what we normally do," said one Hill aide, "it is pretty standard."

The goal, in the end, is to expedite the congressional process by keeping it removed from Republican procedural shenanigans. By skipping a formal conference committee, for example, Democrats can avoid dealing with motions to recommit on contentious issues (whether they be Medicare cuts, late-life consultation, abortion or anything else). This, in turn, provides a narrower window for the GOP to turn the bill into a series of wedge issues and means that there is less of a potential for moderate and conservative Democrats to grow skittish about supporting the legislation.

There are ample opportunities for Republican leadership to draw out the legislative process if it goes to conference committee. The Congressional Research Service, in a report published in April 2003, identified three steps that the Congress has to take simply to send a bill to conference.

- First, the Senate and House must agree to disagree. They must reach the stage of disagreement, which marks the point at which each house has disagreed formally to the legislative proposal of the other.

- Second, the two houses must agree that they want to create a conference committee in order to resolve the legislative disagreement that they have just acknowledged formally. The Senate takes this second step either by requesting a conference with the House or by agreeing to a request for a conference that the House already has made.

- Third, each house must appoint its members of the conference committee. The Speaker appoints House conferees. The Senate can elect its conferees, although it almost always authorizes its presiding officer to appoint the conferees. The Senate must take formal action on the floor to grant this authority to the presiding officer before he or she can appoint the Senate's conferees.

"These steps rarely are contentious but they have the potential to become time-consuming," the report read. "Singly or collectively, however, the four actions can require considerable time to complete if Senators choose to exercise their rights to debate one or more of them at length. At the extreme, Senators can engage in one or several filibusters that can delay or even stall further action on a bill that a majority of the Senate wishes to send to conference."

One the conference is set up, but before the presiding office announces the conferees, there is even more opportunity for Republicans to delay. In the Senate, CRS notes, "there is no limit on the number of motions to instruct that Senators can make. Any motion to instruct, and the instructions in the motion, must be read before the Senate begins to debate it, unless the Senate agrees by unanimous consent to dispense with the reading."

Once that is concluded, yet another layer of byzantine hurdles must be overcome. "After the Senate disposes of a motion to instruct--either by voting for or against it, or by voting to table it--another such motion is in order. Only when no Senator seeks recognition to offer another motion to instruct does the presiding officer proceed to appoint the Senate's conferees."

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