WASHINGTON Jan 7 Congressional Democratic
leaders are sidestepping a formal conference between the U.S.
House of Representatives and the Senate to merge their two
versions of healthcare overhaul legislation. Instead, they will
settle their differences in closed-door talks that also will
include top White House officials.
The decision shuts Republican opponents out of the process
in an effort to move a final bill quickly to the president's
desk. It has prompted Republican leaders and even some
Democrats to complain about a lack of transparency.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs faced two days of
questioning this week over whether President Barack Obama was
violating his campaign pledge to conduct an open process that
would be televised on the C-Span network.
Here are some questions and answers about the final effort
to reconcile the Senate and House versions of the bill.
Q: What is a conference committee?
A: A conference committee is appointed by the House and the
Senate to settle differences between the two bodies on
legislation. Who serves on the committee is up to House and
Senate leaders, but it usually comprises senior members of the
committees that originated the legislation. Both parties are
represented, but the committee makeup would reflect the
majority control of each chamber. In this case, Democrats
control both chambers and a healthcare conference committee
would have been controlled by Democrats.
Q: What is the advantage of bypassing a formal conference?
A: The process of going to conference takes time and
Democrats are anxious to deliver a healthcare overhaul bill to
Obama as quickly as possible, perhaps before his annual State
of the Union address to Congress that is expected to take place
later in January or early February.
Republicans solidly oppose the Democratic legislation and
would likely have used the process of naming a conference to
slow down the measure and build more opposition to it before
the November congressional elections.
Since no Republicans in the Senate voted for the bill, and
only one in the House supported it, Democrats were always going
to focus the negotiations on settling differences among
In theory, a conference committee is suppose to be open to
the public, and the cable industry service channel C-Span was
eager to broadcast deliberations on the healthcare bill.
The reality is that no matter which party controls
Congress, bargaining over legislation takes place behind closed
doors. Open conference committee sessions are used for little
more than making statements about the bill.
Closed-door talks between the House and Senate are nothing
new. Negotiations on President George W. Bush's tax cuts and
legislation creating a Medicare prescription drug benefit for
the elderly were held in closed-door sessions.
Q: What is the disadvantage?
A: Democrats are taking considerable political heat from
Republicans over bypassing the conference process because Obama
promised during his presidential campaign to keep deliberations
over the healthcare bill open to public scrutiny.
Q: How will the two bills be merged.
A: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader
Harry Reid will lead negotiations between the two chambers and
the White House. There are significant differences over
abortion, taxes, insurance subsidies and regulatory control of
proposed new insurance exchanges to be worked out. But the two
bills are similar in their structure and many analysts believe
a final bill will emerge within weeks.
The legislation will have to be submitted to the
Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan office that
analyzes legislation, for an official cost estimate. That
process could take up to two weeks. Then the final bill must be
passed by the House and Senate before going to Obama to be
signed into law.
The legislation could be open to amendment in the Senate,
but Reid has some procedural tools he could use to shut out
Republican efforts to change the bill.
(Reporting by Donna Smith; Editing by David Alexander and