Bypassing Health Care Reform Conference Committee Comes at a Cost

With the political decision made to skip a conference committee and use another, faster Congressional procedure, health care reform is moving along quickly. Congressional leaders, their staffs, and members of the Obama Administration have spent hours considering the differences between the versions of reform passed by the House and the Senate. According to Reuters, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is claiming “Democrats were close to agreement … but still faced challenges in blending the two approaches.”

The streamlined approach being taken by Legislative leaders bypasses the more common approach to blending differing House and Senate bills: the conference committee. Instead of convening a group of Democrats and Republicans to hash out a single bill, the so-called “ping-pong” approach leaves negotiating a compromise in the hands of Legislative leaders (and/or their designees). While far less

The problem Democratic leaders have with the conference committee approach is the many opportunities it provides Republicans to score political points and delay the process – a political strategy GOP leaders have pledged to pursue. By using a procedure known as “messages between the Houses,” however, Democratic leaders can thwart the Republican strategy of delay. However, the procedural victory trades one set of political headaches for another. Republicans will claim that Democrats are ramming through partisan reforms without listening to the people (with “people” being defined as those who agree with the GOP and/or disagree with the Democrats). In that polls show a majority of Americans oppose a description of the Democratic health care reforms, that’s a lot of people.

Blogger Keith Hennessey does a great job of explaining the messages between the Houses procedure and the mechanics are pretty straightforward. Put simply: the Senate bill will be brought up on the floor of the House, considers and passes amendments on a majority vote. (The assumption being that Speaker Pelosi will only bring to the floor a version of the health care reform legislation she knows can pass). The legislation returns to the Senate where the amended version will be voted upon. Assuming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can keep his 60 votes together to end the expected Republican filibuster, the Senate then votes on the bill. With both chambers having passed identical bills, the legislation is sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.

In a conference committee, Republicans are in the room. So are other lawmakers the legislative leaders believe are necessary to work through controversial issues or who can help deliver the needed votes. The reality is that Republicans have already stated their position in absolute terms: they oppose the bill and will do everything in their power to defeat it. This is not the kind of negotiating posture that gets one invited to too many parties. So in one sense the Democrats are simply acknowledging reality: Republicans don’t want to talk about compromises, they want to kill the bill. Instead of having GOP lawmakers watch Democrats talk about reform, the Democrats will simply talk among themselves and those they feel need to be included to build the required majorities.

Bypassing Republicans undermines the pledges then Senator Obama made during the presidential campaign to make laws in a transparent, bi-partisan manner. Closed doors, by definition, are not transparent. And the resulting legislation is unlikely to garner a single Republican vote. Both of these outcomes are negative for Democrats. However, they seem to have made the political calculation that: 1) the harm from failing to pass health care reform is far greater; and 2) few will remember, and fewer will care about, the process once health care reform is signed into law. They may be right.

The reality is the legislation emerging from the ping pong procedure is highly likely to be the same as what would have emerged from the conference committee process. The debate over how the legislation is written will be noisy, but in the long run it is of secondary importance. What really matters is what health care reform does.

It’s Official: Health Care Reform 2010 is a Democrats-only Affair

Both sides abandoned bi-partisanship concerning health care reform a long, long time ago. Now it’s official, as these things go.

With both chambers having passed a version of comprehensive health care reform the bills are headed for a House-Senate conference committee. Usually this committee, made up of both Democrats and Republicans, iron out differences between the two proposals and produces something both the House and Senate can be expected to pass.

There are a lot of formal, procedural issues involved in this process. Usually, for example, three formal votes need to be held in both the Senate and the House before the conference committee formally convenes. Since each vote can be filibustered in the Senate, Democrats would need to bring all 60 members of its caucus to the floor for each of these votes. Then, at least in the Senate (I’m not sure about the House) there can be votes on non-binding recommendations to the conference committee members. As noted in an Associated Press article, this would “require Democrats to vote on political controversies such as wiping out the legislation’s proposed cuts in Medicare ….” As 2010 is an election year, this is a political weapon Democrats would prefer to keep out of the hands of the GOP.

So, according to the AP article, Democrats in Congress, along with the White House, are intent on bypassing the traditional conference committee procedures, reducing the opportunity for the GOP to force embarrassing votes or to delay a final version of health care reform legislation. I don’t pretend to be an expert on Congressional procedures, so I can’t explain how this is done or why it’s permitted. But the “why” and “how” is less important than the fact of it.

What this means is that negotiations over the final version of health care reform will be conducted solely among Democrats. This was going to happen anyway as there is no common ground between the parties on the legislation. As a result, the votes of Democratic moderates become even more clearly critical to passage of the reform legislation. It also means that Congress is far more likely to achieve its goal of putting health care reform legislation on President Barack Obama’s desk before his State of the Union address anticipated to be given in early February.

Republicans will still be vocal on health care reform. They’ll still seek to delay the legislation. Their task, however, will now be much more difficult.