Democrats in Congress look for end run to health care win 

Congressional Democrats, eager to complete health care legislation by the end of the month, will try to skip the step of having a committee of House and Senate members craft a compromise bill from the different versions produced by the two chambers.

Democratic leaders are close to an agreement to negotiate a compromise informally between the two chambers, thus bypassing the conference committee process that would allow Senate Republicans many opportunities to block the bill through the use of a filibuster.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has spoken with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., about using the informal route, leadership aides confirmed to The Examiner.

"There will likely not be a formal conference because Republicans have pledged to not let us go to conference," an aide said.

 

Hard to reconcile

Major differences between the House and Senate health bills include:

* Abortion funding -- The House bill bans coverage for elective abortions under taxpayer-subsidized insurance plans, but it permits women who use subsidies to use their own money to buy extra coverage to cover the procedure. The Senate bill lets the states decide whether to ban abortion coverage by insurance companies that participate in the subsidized insurance program and requires women to pay a separate fee for abortion coverage.

* Government insurance -- The House plan includes a government-run public option. The Senate bill would offer a nationwide system of health insurance plans that mimics coverage offered to federal employees.

* Taxes -- The House bill raises taxes on individuals earning $200,000 and couples earning $250,000. The Senate bill imposes a 40 percent excise tax on "Cadillac" insurance plans that cost $8,500 a year for individuals and $23,000 for families.

Congressional rules call for "conference committees" of House and Senate members to meet in order to iron out differences between bills, but the process is subject to procedural requirements that might allow for additional delays.

 

The informal approach will involve House and Senate Democrats meeting secretly to come up with a compromise that the two chambers will vote on. House Democratic leaders and committee chairmen are in the Capitol this week, working with Senate staff, and the entire House Democratic caucus is scheduled to meet Thursday to discuss health care.

Whatever bill the two sides agree upon will ultimately have to clear the Senate with a supermajority of 60 votes, which means Reid must have the backing of every Democratically controlled vote to achieve passage. None of the Senate's 40 Republicans are expected to support it.

Finding a compromise could be difficult. A bill that does not mirror the Senate version could cost moderate Democratic votes in that chamber. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., has already pledged to vote against a final bill that is different from the one he agreed to on Dec. 24 after hours of intense negotiations with the Democratic leadership.

But House Democrats are unhappy with many aspects of the Senate bill, and the 80-plus members of the most liberal faction, the Progressive Caucus, are demanding the bill be aligned more closely with the House legislation.

"I am disappointed that there will be no formal conference process by which various constituencies can impact the discussion," Progressive Caucus Co-chairman Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said. "I have not been approached about my concerns with the Senate bill, and I will be raising those at the Democratic Caucus meeting on Thursday. I and other progressives saw a conference as a means to improve the bill and have a real debate, and now with this behind-the-scenes approach, we're concerned even more."

sferrechio@washingtonexaminer.com

   

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