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Conference Committee Counts This Time

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As the Senate Finance Committee winds its way toward finally getting a bill out on health care, attention is starting to turn to how Sen. Reid will end up marrying the Finance and HELP Committee bills. He has some really challenging things to think through in terms of how to move things forward. One important point I do want to make, before we see either the merged bill, or what the Senate floor fight brings us, is how important the conference committee will be on the health care bill this year.

As I do from time to time, I want to suggest again how wrong conventional wisdom is, both from the traditional media and from some of my progressive friends, relating to the importance of the conference committee on this bill. This conventional wisdom does have a reason for its existence, which is that House progressives have quite a few times in the past been rolled. Because of this, there is an expectation that it will happen every time. A classic example: this Politico piece which asked the question "When it comes to health care, does the House even matter?" The answer is only no if House progressives give up and let the Senate conservatives decide the nature of this legislation.

Here's what is different this time, though: House progressives are showing some muscle, some guts, and some cohesiveness. They have pledged in writing that they will not get rolled this time, and I think that their leadership is whipping and organizing this thing in the right way. I had a progressive friend awhile back ask me, "Has a bill ever gotten better in conference?" And actually, the answer is yes. The 1993 budget bill, the 1994 crime bill, the S-CHIP bill in 1998, and even several of the budget bills in the 1990s after the Republicans took control of Congress all got better in conference in some significant ways. It's up to House progressives to make this a strong bill. This legislation is too important to the White House for this to die, so if they stick together and negotiate well, House progressives can make this happen.

Now don't get me wrong: what happens on the Senate floor is incredibly important. We need to get the best possible bill out of the Senate. But progressives should not panic if the language on the public option, or any other major issue in the bill, is not great. No matter what happens in the Senate the first time around, I am convinced that how good this bill is will ultimately come down to how good the House negotiators are on the bill. Sen. Reid has some tough choices on how to approach the Senate strategy, and Senate progressives and all of the pro-health care reform movement need to work together to get the best possible bill in the Senate floor fight. But don't give up on the conference committee process: this time, the House (and House progressives) will be a player.