Congressional Leaders Begin Reconciling Healthcare Bills

Daunting task ahead as lawmakers fight over provisions

NEWS_HealthcareWhen members of the U.S. House of Representatives return to Washington this week, they will fully immerse themselves in the daunting task of reconciling the House and Senate healthcare reform bills into a final piece of legislation that President Barack Obama can sign into law before his first State of the Union address. Or so they hope.

Anticipating the inevitable intraparty disputes, Democratic leaders and committee chairs such as Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-New York) spent part of last week strategizing behind closed doors. They also held a telephone caucus meeting with approximately 175 members to begin addressing their concern that the Senate version will prevail.

They have reason to worry. Obama appears to be leaning more toward some key provisions in the Senate bill that House lawmakers oppose. But perhaps more important, given the almost Herculean effort required to muster the 60 votes necessary to pass a Senate bill, Democrats can’t afford to upset the fragile coalition that delivered them. The political reality is that it’s much harder to get to 60 than 218, the number of votes required to pass a bill in the House.

As a result, there won’t be a formal conference and lawmakers will negotiate the final deal privately, which some critics have decried as an assault on democracy.

“Harry Reid has a different set of rules and a much harder job than Speaker Nancy Pelosi does,” said Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-South Carolina) before Reid’s negative comments about Obama came to light.

The most controversial, and possibly irreconcilable, difference is a public option, the prospect of which is looking, well, more optional. Sens.  Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana), Joesph Lieberman (I-Connecticut), Blanche Lincoln (D-Arkansas), and Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska) have pledged to vote against any bill that includes it. House Democratic leaders also seem to be backing away from it.

“What’s in a name?” Clyburn asks.

The goals of a public option, he says, are to make healthcare affordable and accessible and to make insurance companies accountable, which the House bill achieves in the form of a hybrid.

“I’ve never been hung up on or an advocate of a public option and have said from day one that we ought to be looking at a hybrid that can do that for us,” he said. “We’ll be looking at what the Senate’s done, look at what we did, and see whether or not we can get those things melded. Are we going to have a ‘robust public option’? I don’t think so. I think we are going to have a plan that will achieve those three As.”

Progressives may still try to press their case, although they, too, seem to realize it’s likely a lost cause.

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